Technology transfer in an open society

Recently the University of Massachusetts Amherst courted controversy when it announced that it would not admit Iranian students into some programs in the College of Engineering and in the College of Natural Sciences. The rule sought to comply with sanctions on Iran, but facing strong criticism from faculty and students the university reversed itself and replaced the ban with a more flexible policy that would craft a special curriculum for Iranian students in the fields relevant to the ban. It is not yet clear how that policy will be implemented, but what has become patently clear is that a blanket ban on students by national origin is a transgression of the principles of an open society including academic freedom. Very rarely will the knowledge created and taught at universities present a security risk that justifies the outright exclusion of an entire nationality from participating in the research and learning enterprise.

A controversial ban

Section 501 of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 explicitly denies visas to Iranian nationals seeking study in fields related to nuclear engineering or the energy sector. After the controversy and in consultation with the State Department, the university replaced the ban for a policy of “individualized study plans” for Iranian students in the sanctioned fields. Questions remain as to the practicality of crafting study plans that exclude the kind of knowledge Iranians are not supposed to learn. One can imagine the inherent difficulty of asking some students to skip a few chapters of the textbook or to take a coffee break outside the lab when certain experiments are conducted.

In a recent column, philosopher Behnam Taebi reminded us of a similar controversy when the Dutch government tried to restrict admission of Iranian students. He offers a valuable lesson from both experiences: “the Iranian academic community has traditionally been a bastion of reformism—a tendency Western governments and universities have every interest in encouraging” and correctly concludes that a ban of Iranian students is self-defeating.

Universities export knowledge and values

The costs of constraining technology transfer could indeed outweigh the benefits of study programs that entail technical and cultural exchange at the same time. American universities export knowledge and technology but also they export American values.

Surely, not all values for export are exactly the height of civilization. Skeptics may point out that conspicuous consumption and reality TV are not worth disseminating but these critics would do well recalling that neither social posing nor voyeurism were invented in the U.S.; what we see here are just new bottles for very old wine. In contrast, the best values for export are those of the American political tradition. Living in the U.S. affords international students a regular exposure to that tradition in informal settings such as community life and churchgoing, and in more formal ones, through the stupendous collections of university libraries and the campus curriculum on American history and political thought.

Aside of the lofty and the frivolous, however, there are a few values that are inherent to university life. Of course, the U.S. does not have a monopoly on those values—they are inherent to all universities in stable democracies—but they are certainly part of the experience of any international student. Consider these three:

Stability: Students appreciate the relative quietude of university life. In the U.S., most campuses are physically designed as a refuge from the frantic pace of modern life and provide the peace and safety necessary to allow the mind to concentrate, grow, and discover. Students coming from countries troubled by political instability and conflict are able to stop worrying about questions of subsistence or survival and can devote their attention to solve the puzzles of nature and society.

Meritocracy: Another value characteristic of academia is meritocracy. The system has its flaws but academia more than other walks of life assigns rewards based on clear standards of performance. There are systemic problems and no absence of prejudice, but hard work and talent tend to be given their due.

Social awareness: A third value is a collective concern with public affairs in the local, national, and global spheres. Not everyone in the academic community is socially engaged, but within campus there is a steady supply of debate on contemporary issues and ample opportunity for voluntary work. Visitors will find it easy to engage friends and colleagues in relevant debates and join them in meaningful action on and off campus.

Technology transfer is good diplomacy

Many international students remain in the U.S. after concluding their training but they also keep ties to their families and scientific communities in their countries of origin. Others return home and may seek to reproduce there the stability, meritocracy, and engagement with social issues that were constitutive of their time at an American university. Some will seek reform within their own universities and a few will go further and press for reform to their country’s political system. Spreading the values of academic life in democratic societies is a legitimate and powerful approach to spreading democratic values around the world.

Technology transfer as a term of art has evolved to recognize the two-way exchange of knowledge between research and industrial organizations. Likewise, values move both ways and international students enrich American life by injecting their spheres with their own values for export. The policy of American universities of remaining open to all nationalities is both instrument and symbol of an open society. Technology transfer by means of advanced training is indeed good diplomacy.