03 July 2013

472. Briefly: Iranian PhD students in Australia

I'm not going to leave much in the way of a comment, but this doesn't seem to have been publicised enough. Searching the web quickly didn't bring this up at all, and it's a shame since it's important, in particular if you are an Iranian national thinking about doing a PhD in Australia.

About a week ago the faculty in the chemistry department at my university were informed that heavy restrictions in terms of access to instrumentation has been put in place for students from North Korea, Syria and Iran via Federal legislation.

While I don't think there are any students from North Korea or Syria around, there are several Iranian students at different stages of their PhD. In fact, I would say around 50% of our applicants are from India, 25% are from Pakistan and 20 % are from Iran (in terms of accepted students the ratio is very different)

In practical terms, this means that Iranian students in the department are not allowed to use:
Mass spectrometers

All of which are standard instruments which most chemists would find necessary to do research. In addition, they can hardly be considered as being cutting edge, trade secrets or anything like that -- commercial NMR instruments have been around since the 1950s, infrared an UV/Visible spectroscopy go much further back. Mass spectrometry is a standard tool which, although many of the current designs only go back to the 1980s (e.g. ESI), is so conceptually simple and innocuous, that (to me) restrictions on it doesn't make sense. And so on.

In addition, supervisors of Iranian students have been asked to draw up a risk management plan to prevent student access to the above instruments, which is a particular problem given that they are used in teaching as well, and are available on a walk-in basis to undergraduate students doing projects in research labs.

Currently, any supervisor who has an Iranian student needing to use any of the instruments above will need to assign another student to do these measurements for the Iranian national.

While this doesn't formally preclude Iranians from coming to Australia to do a PhD, we have been advised that we should reject any applicants at this point. This may change once the university has figured out exactly where they must draw the line in terms of restricting access to Iranians to different facilities, but for now it's a blanket ban.

My personal opinion is that while you'd be led by the media to think of anyone from North Korea, Syria and Iran as potential spies, these are real people too. Many Iranians would either be completely disinterested in politics, or actively antipathetic to their regime. And the best thing about democracies -- we shouldn't have any issues with them supporting their government either. So I don't really agree with this as a security measure to prevent nuclear proliferation, which must surely be the stated goal.

And if the idea is to put in place sanctions to promote regime change, then why limit the type of instrumentation that students can access? Or are we trying to punish the children of the leadership in Iran? Then why not limit the sanctions to those specifically? Top students tend to come from all socioeconomic classes.

The timing is also very odd, given the recent election of a moderate.

And why Iran and not Belarus, China, Zimbabwe etc.?

Again, I don't like putting opinion pieces on this blog (other than as minor parts/rants of posts with actual content) but I think this should be publicized more.

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