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.

There are currently 1 comments highlighted: 178516.

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

  1. Capt. Jim,
    A good personal friend and colleague from my BusinessWeek days, Bill Holstein, published a book on exactly this topic last year


    Bill was Beijing bureau chief for UPI in the early 1980s (also was in Kabul when the Soviets invaded) and has been an Asia hand for decades.

    He did an op ed in the Wall Street Journal on this topic in Oct. 2019.

    He tends to agree with you.

  2. “The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.” There is some debate as to the exact quote or who said it. I believe it was Hunter Biden while consulting with the ChiComms.

  3. Jim raises important questions. The simple answer to the question of “why” U.S. institutions educate so many of our adversaries is that our adversaries pay top dollar — out-of-state tuition & fees, no financial aid required — and our higher-ed educations are far more concerned about maintaining revenues than maintaining national security.

    As for Virginia’s institutions, I addressed that issue in October: https://www.baconsrebellion.com/wp/department-of-education-database-details-foreign-ties-of-virginia-universities/ (If you didn’t notice it, you’re not alone. Outside the higher-ed community, hardly anyone read it.)

    Here’s my conclusion: “Unless it turns out that Virginia universities are failing to report foreign gifts and contracts — and DOE never suggests that might be the case — citizens of the commonwealth can rest easy. Virginia institutions are doing little business with questionable foreign powers — none with Russia, none with Iran, and very little with China. VCU, GMU and W&M do have connections with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but the ties are educational, neither tied to R&D nor, as far as we know, propagandizing in the U.S.”

    • I don’t reference “foreign ties”. I care, but that is not the issue.

      How do Chinese and Iranian students get permission from their governments to study math, science and engineering at the doctoral level in the United States?

      Given the utterly controlling nature of those governments, what is our answer?

      Anyone who thinks many of them are not active spies as well as learning U.S. national security technology at the highest levels for use against us is at best naive. At worst, part of the problem.

  4. Jim. Actually China is the no.2 destination for Virginia exports but it’s mostly low end stuff like scrap, pulp and coal.

  5. For the same reason, Jim, that Ollie North sent Iran I-Hawks, which given their MIT trained engineers resulted in a fine medium range air-to-air missile capable of neutralizing an F/A-18 with little difficulty. Plus, they still have upgraded the versions for ground-to-air.


    Their nuke program is just a tip of their current capability. BTW, giving them an odd drone or two hasn’t helped either.

    The good news is that most of those engineers and highly trained who were here when the Shah was tossed, stayed here.

    Maybe CRT will make back there?

    • We apparently got quite a bit of scrap metal returned to US soil on December 7, 1941 and subsequent dates. We never learn…..

      One point to consider: Sadly, if restricted to US citizens or US persons, most E schools would never fill the seats. Our own schools are not producing the kids from high school, or candidates for advanced degrees. I remember being shocked at my son’s UVA E school graduation by how many foreign students there were (now 17 years ago.) Don’t know about his master’s program, but I bet it was similar.

      • Uh yep, plus we limited the size of our ships. Good plan.

        Mid 70s at W&M, more than 1/2 the Applied Science students were from Taiwan (maybe). I loved them. They had Xeroxed books and no winter clothing. We had a good 6″ of snow start falling and they went bonkers.

        The worst part is that we allow OUR government to lie to us and not just them. Well, we don’t allow it, they just do.

  6. How else do you expect them to get proper exposure to Progressive Totalitarianism?

  7. Baconator with extra cheese

    28 years ago I would ride the early bus to class at a large state school and most of the kids headed to the engineering building were foreign nationals…. most of my chemistry TAs were Chinese.

  8. Curious we’re so worried about Chinese and Iranian kids coming here to learn turning into spies when our good friends the Russians were just implicated in a rather significant bit of cyber espionage against the United States government (Hillary Clinton’s email server? Remains unhacked, so maybe she was on to something). To say nothing of all the hand waving about “we interfere in other countries’ elections all the time”; so is it the case that we don’t send spies to other countries so that’s why these students are a concern or is this just a new version of IOKIYAR…It’s Okay If You’re A Russian.


    So, first and foremost it’s all about a series of trade offs, isn’t it? Does the United States want to adjust its spending and taxing priorities such that foreign students aren’t needed to help keep our universities in the black? (We don’t). Does the United States want to spend the money it would cost to improve the educational attainment of its students to meet the amount – assuming there is a deficiency – of STEM graduates we need? (We don’t). Do US companies want to pay prevailing wages to US labor instead of relying on cheaper foreign labor? (They don’t).

    But there’s also the question of both soft power and brain draining our international competitors. Something like 75 percent of foreign students educated in US universities plan to stay in the country, which (subtracting whatever number you assume are spies) means we deny those countries some of their best and brightest. For the ones that do return, is there a benefit to having them spent time acculturating to the United States so that the next generation of leaders has a more positive view of our country than the current? If Osama bin Laden had been using American porn instead of Japanese porn games (it’s true, look it up!) would he have been less likely to lash out at the United States? I mean, he was a big Tom and Jerry fan (also true, look it up!) so probably not. But I think the opportunity for use of soft power here is non-trivial and outweighs the risk of espionage.

    • “Your Honor, my client was cheated of a rightful victory by wide-spread voter fraud.”
      “Do you have any evidence to present to the court of this fraud?”
      “Uh, no. There is no evidence.”
      “Well, do you have any evidence of any fraud?”
      “No. But, there could’ve been.”

  9. I bet a lot of those foreign-born students are just trying to find a way to stay in the USA. Look around, much of the tech industry is foreign born as is quite a percentage of our doctors and other speciaists are.

    We GAIN as a country when a foreign student comes here and gets a degree and stays. We offer H1-B visas to foreign-born, foreign-educated folks also.

    We can’t be insular and isolationist. We have to be part of the global economy. Used to be the GOP was in favor of the global free market before their base became opposed.

    We WIN – when we are well-educated and innovative and efficient and productive.

    We lose when we compete against other countries for low-skill work.

    • Actually, if I recall, overstaying student visas was like the #2 or #3 method of producing “illegal” aliens. “Come for Disney World. Stay for the lifestyle,” was the other.

    • We GAIN as a country when a foreign student comes here and gets a degree and stays and actually gets a job and becomes a taxpayer.

  10. Most institutions, including businesses, higher education, associations and nonprofits, will sell out their principles, if any, for money. The Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce (now the Northern Virginia Chamber) regularly supported higher taxes for its members to pay for roads designed to let real estate developers build more without proffering more money.

  11. Principles?

    Once upon a time, there was a belief in this Country that an open society provides an experience which is envied by others. There was a faith that our “land of opportunity” self-evidently offered a superior way of life, both in politic aland economic terms, that sold itself to those who experienced it. There was a belief that those foreigners who lived here and experienced American civil freedoms would become and remain our best ambassadors when they returned ‘home.’ You may call this a faith, a belief, in “American Exceptionalism” if you will, but I think of it more as an assumption: that an open society, founded on such principles as the marketplace of ideas and free speech and public education and free trade, would withstand — even benefit from — the widespread adoption of its best ideas and inventions outside its borders, whether brought about by the flattery of imitation or even surreptitous theft.

    This was the faith that the Marshall Plan was better than isolation; that Taiwan and South Korea and West German successes were our success too; that Tiananman Square was a bump in the Mainland road, not its end; that Hong Kong would remain a bastion of free speech and free elections; that spontaneous Arab Spring uprisings in Tripoli and Cairo and Tehran were as deserving of our admiration and support as those that ended the Cold War in Berlin and Warsaw and Bucharest and Moscow.

    How cynical we have become; how convinced of our vulnerability we are today; how distrustful of the VOA and the Peace Corps; how afraid to use the very international institutions we helped create, like the WTO and the IMF; how callous and insular about the WHO; how unwilling even to contemplate the horrors of refugee life, and the worse conditions they fled. Out of sight, out of mind.

    So, you ask “Why? . . . Is there some U.S. interest served here that is more important than national security? Hearts and minds?” I submit, that’s a false choice. We can have national security and try to win over the hearts and minds of foreign students. We can also have national security by erecting the sort of entirely closed borders that keep “them” outside and “us” inside — but I submit, the latter cannot succeed as a halfway measure; it’s all or nothing, and given the internet and international trade, it’s nothing.

    • And some of this newfound isolation-phobia is coming from folks who characterize themselves as “libertarians”. Go figure.

    • To what extent has hewing to the principles of an open society advantaged the West’s national security vis a vis China in the past few decades? I submit to you that the median Chinese FX student — let alone the median CCP member or mainlander — is substantially more nationalist and closed-off to Western values than you imply. Unless we’re treating the education of Chinese elites as a purely transactional effort to pad out uni admins’ compensation, I see significant downside.

  12. My only attendance at a “liberal” university was when I received my MS in Engineering at UVA in 1988. I was also in deferment status at the time, ahead of going on active duty in the US military. I was shocked at the number of students there at that time from both communist China and ayatollah Iran. That was 32 years ago!

  13. I recall “No foreign coins please” was the (humorous) sign on our Coke vending machine in engr grad school we’re talking 1978. I went to UPenn grad school and had many foreign friends and coworkers, but I have not witnessed a problem of “training the enemy” in my era – but could be different now. Don’t forget a single molecule of contaminant kills millions here, so it’s better to make everything in China… the human body there is able to handle lax emission rules. So lots of things made overseas now, for us (US).

  14. My hot take on US higher ed dynamics is that it lets Western security services “pan for gold”; in that it gives us a dine-in menu of CCP princelings to work into assets, recruit for National Labs work, or otherwise enter into spreadsheets at Langley. Although our open society disadvantages us in CI terms, “infiltration” runs both ways.

  15. Some may not recall, but the US missile program began with German scientists from Nazi Germany…

    ” Operation Paperclip was a secret program of the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency (JIOA) largely carried out by special agents of Army CIC, in which more than 1,600 German scientists, engineers, and technicians, such as Wernher von Braun and his V-2 rocket team, were taken from Germany to the United States, for U.S. government employment, primarily between 1945 and 1959. Many were former members, and some were former leaders, of the Nazi Party.[1][2]”

  16. Pingback: Hard Power Matters – America’s Universities Must Protect It | Bacon's Rebellion

  17. As bad as it has become in this country, it’s still a place that many from other countries would choose to live ……….. In fact, more than 1/2 of our “illegals” actually do not come from Mexico/Latin American but from folks overstaying their VISAs.

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