MIT does accept research restrictions in one area, but only because the law now requires it to. The bioterrorism preparedness act, which will be fully implemented in November, restricts the use of some 50 biological agents and toxins-all deemed significant threats to public health-to those who receive government security clearance. The law also governs the transfer and receipt of the agents and toxins, requires secured labs, regulates the disposal of materials, and mandates special training and record keeping in labs where any of the specified agents are used and where the volume of the toxins exceeds a given limit.
Regulating these agents is “the prudent thing to do,” says David Schauer, an associate professor of biological engineering who does research on infectious diseases. But he’s also concerned because the regulations are vague and their implementation unclear. “Hopefully the regulations will be based on real scientific risks, not knee-jerk responses to political events.”
Researchers already follow safety protocols when they work with hazardous biological materials, but they are not used to working under laws that are enforcement oriented. Jamie Lewis Keith, MIT’s senior counsel and managing director for environmental programs and risk management, cautions that the Justice Department is taking the law very seriously and will prosecute people even for honest mistakes. “I think everyone agrees that particularly dangerous biological materials need to be kept out of the hands of people who would use them for bad purposes,” she says, “but it’s important that research go forward to advance medicine and the understanding of biology, and there’s a real conflict between those two objectives.”
The new bioterrorism law does not pose much of a problem for MIT yet. Only a few graduate students, Brown says, will be affected by the rule prohibiting foreign nationals from working with the listed agents and toxins. A handful of labs do use restricted toxins, but all of them are in volumes under the threshold that triggers restrictions. Claudia Mickelson, the Institute’s biosafety officer, is making sure things stay that way by tracking the amount of toxins each lab uses. And only one laboratory at MIT will use a biological agent that requires security. That lab is under construction and will be operational by the November compliance deadline. The Institute’s biggest concern, according to Gast, is that the list of agents and toxins could be expanded at any time and without warning.
Climate on Campus
Outside of the labs and classrooms, international students at MIT remain anxious and stressed, says Sanith Wijesinghe, SM ‘98, a doctoral candidate in aeronautics and astronautics. He says the international community at MIT is under a higher level of scrutiny than in the past. According to Guichard-Ashbrook, FBI agents have been on campus interviewing students. And, Wijesinghe says, many students will not attend community meetings because they are afraid their public remarks could trigger FBI interviews. “It feels like a police state,” he says.
Meanwhile, approval of visa applications has slowed to a crawl. More incoming students are being subjected to security reviews initiated by officials in consulates and embassies. Many foreign nationals who already have valid visas are getting stuck abroad because of the new regulations. Others, including Wijesinghe, are foregoing international conferences or visits to their homes because they are afraid lengthy security reviews could delay their return or deny them reentry altogether.
Zuberi took the risk of being stuck abroad last spring and went to Mexico City as part of a team working to reduce the city’s air pollution. He came harrowingly close to being deported on his return because he had failed to undergo an exit interview at Logan Airport. In fact, Zuberi had tried for hours to locate an official to conduct the interview, but to no avail. With the airline’s assurance that he would be interviewed in Newark if necessary, Zuberi went ahead with his travel plans. But while in Mexico, he heard of another Pakistani’s deportation for having missed an exit interview, so he contacted a Boston lawyer for advice. He was thus prepared for the three-hour interrogation he later faced, but not for the aggressive manner in which it was conducted.
“I was treated like I had committed a crime,” Zuberi says. Eventually his case was referred to a senior immigration official who approved his reentry with the admonishment that another broken immigration law could bar him from the country permanently. When he reached Logan, he discovered his luggage had been opened, the contents tousled, and several items removed.
“These small acts are difficult to deal with, and after a while you begin to wonder what you’re doing here,” he says.
Which is exactly what dismays administrators. As security continues to tighten, there’s a very legitimate fear that it will alter the character of U.S. higher education, diminish the quality of its research, and quite possibly erode its global preeminence in the decades to come.