Why Are We Educating Citizens of Hostile Nations in Advanced Math, Science and Engineering?

by James C. Sherlock Updated Dec 16 at 1:55 PM

The title poses a reasonable question.

China and Iran are two of America’s greatest national security threats.

Yet we continue to educate their citizens in the most security-sensitive programs of instruction at the highest levels of American higher education.

Chinese and Iranian students are nearly exclusively enrolled in fields that are needed for the use and development of military and espionage technology, including both national security and business espionage, to be employed against the United States and our allies.

We didn’t educate Soviet scientists during the last cold war. What is different this time?

On Dec. 9, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged universities in the United States to scrutinize China’s assistance and students, warning that Beijing was set on stealing innovation.

I checked available National Science Foundation (NSF) data to try to gauge the impact of America’s advanced graduate education of Chinese and Iranian nationals.

I use here the awarding of doctoral degrees, especially in math, science and engineering, as the measure of the threat.

Big picture

Based on NSF data, foreign citizens on temporary visas have been awarded more doctorates by U.S. universities in both Mathematics and Computer Sciences and in Engineering than U.S. citizens or U.S. permanent residents in every year since 2004.

Chinese and Iranian Nationals

Chinese citizens on temporary visas were awarded 5,742 doctorates in science and engineering fields by U.S. universities in 2019 alone, the last year for which data are available.

Iranian citizens on temporary visas were awarded 877 science and engineering doctorates here in that same year.

In 2019 as usual, Chinese visa holders ranked 1st for total foreign national doctoral degree recipients from U.S. universities with nearly three times as many as second place India. Iran was 4th.

About 90% of both Chinese and Iranian visa holders who were awarded doctorates by U.S. universities were awarded them in the fields of mathematics, computer science and engineering.

Chinese and Iranian visa holders together made up 41% of the total number of foreign nationals awarded doctoral degree by U.S. universities.

The New York Times, relays the concerns of “ university employees” who consider people who question U.S. policy in this matter guilty of racism.

Of course.

The Trump administration plans to cancel the visas of thousands of Chinese graduate students and researchers in the United States who have direct ties to universities affiliated with the People’s Liberation Army, according to American officials with knowledge of the discussions.

American universities are expected to push back against the administration’s move. While international educational exchange is prized for its intellectual value, many schools also rely on full tuition payments from foreign students to help cover costs, especially the large group of students from China.

Administrators and teachers have been briefed in recent years by the F.B.I. and the Justice Department on potential national security threats posed by Chinese students, especially ones working in the sciences. But the university employees are wary of a possible new “red scare” that targets students of a specific national background and that could contribute to anti-Asian racism.

Virginia Universities and Colleges

In that same year of 2019, Virginia institutions of higher learning awarded 106 doctorates in Mathematics and Computer Sciences and 295 in Engineering.

I checked with the State Council of Higher Education (SCHEV). That organization reported back that it does not track students by country of origin.

But if Virginia data are representative of those nationally, universities and colleges in the Commonwealth are awarding doctoral degrees in fields that threaten U.S. national security to more than a hundred Chinese and Iranian citizens every year.


It seem reasonable to ask why the either nation or the Commonwealth allows this to continue.

Is there some U.S. interest served here that is more important than national security?  Hearts and minds?

Chinese and Iranian students represent major espionage risks both while in the United States and when they return home and then maintain relationships with their professional contacts in the United States. Ask the FBI counterintelligence professionals. The FBI Director has recently spoken to this issue.

So why are they allowed to be here?

Will Virginia politicians direct SCHEV to get the numbers of Chinese and Iranian citizens being educated in Virginia’s colleges and universities?

Will they act on that information?

Does Governor Northam have an opinion? The Secretary of Education Qarni? The Boards of Virginia’s state funded colleges and universities?

Time to find out the answers to those questions.