ICE Needs More Data to Monitor Foreign Students Taking US Research, Watchdog Says

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The data is meant to assess the risk of foreign STEM students and scholars transferring technology from American universities to foreign entities.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement may need to update one of its databases to capture more data about the risk of foreign entities obtaining U.S. technology via international students, according to a Government Accountability Office report released on Tuesday. 

According to GAO, the federal government spends billions of dollars annually to conduct research at American universities. But some of this research may be performed by foreign students and scholars, which could pose a risk of foreign influence and American technology and research being transferred to foreign entities. 

For example, the report stated that 32% of foreign graduate students studying STEM from 2016-2020 at American universities were from China, 41% from India, 2% from Iran, 2% from Taiwan, 2% from South Korea and 20% from all other countries. 

GAO noted that agencies have identified several factors that indicate the type of students that may pose the greatest risk of transferring technology to a foreign entity, such as if the student is “from a country of concern like China.” 

While ICE maintains a database for some of these factors—the number of graduate students from countries that pose a concern for the transfer of technology and students studying STEM that are identified as more likely to be involved in sensitive research—it has not determined if this database needs to be updated to include other data related to these risks. As a result, GAO concluded that ICE’s data is likely incomplete.

Specifically, GAO stated that ICE did not create “milestones to complete a required assessment of whether it needs to modify its database to collect additional data related to some risk factors, in part because it has focused available resources on other priorities.” Meanwhile, ICE did not have complete data on information such as a student’s employment in the U.S., which would help determine if they have access to technology. 

In order to protect American research from transferring to foreign entities, U.S. agencies that fund research increased the investigation of researchers for fraud and failure to disclose possible sources of influence, according to GAO. The investigations led to individuals’ removal from research positions because of undisclosed affiliations, such as receiving funding from a foreign-affiliated institution. The report added that “while agency officials acknowledged concerns related to racial bias in their investigations involving China, they emphasized that no decisions are based on individual characteristics such as nationality or visa status. Officials also noted that the subjects of investigations were more likely to be permanent university employees than visiting foreign students and scholars.”

GAO made two recommendations to ICE: to create milestones to complete the assessment of its data and database and to improve the data on factors that could indicate technology transfer risk, such as employer information. ICE agreed with the recommendations.

The released report is a public version of a sensitive report GAO issued in August 2022. As a result, sensitive information was omitted from the public version.