The British government has launched a new program of security checks for foreign graduate students to prevent sensitive scientific information from being used in other countries to develop weapons of mass destruction.
The new program, first reported Wednesday by the journal Nature, requires students from outside the European Economic Area and Switzerland to complete an online questionnaire asking about their backgrounds and families. The documents will be vetted by British security agencies before the students can apply for visas to enter the country.
The goal is to prevent sensitive information in fields such as nuclear physics and microbiology from being used for malicious purposes, such as the development of weapons of mass destruction, a Foreign Office official said while speaking on condition of anonymity in line with ministry's rules.
"There are certain countries (which) could conceivably use that kind of scientific information for the wrong reasons," including terrorism, the Foreign Office official said.
He declined to identify the countries which are of particular concern.
The list of 41 disciplines at issue under the new program includes biology, physics, chemistry, engineering and mathematics. The government estimates that about 14,000 students will be affected each year.
Foreign undergraduate students will not be affected by the new program, which came into effect Nov. 1.
Gemma Tumelty, president of Britain's National Union of Students, described it as unfair.
"This new screening system treats international students with undue suspicion," she said. "This is wrong."
The new system resembles a U.S. program tightened after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks which made foreign students studying subjects such as nuclear technology and chemical and biotechnology engineering undergo further screening. At one point, that system delayed many applications, reducing the number of academics visiting the United States.
Some officials associated with Britain's graduate university programs expressed concern on Wednesday that the new vetting system would unfairly delay the arrival of foreign students.
"I think it will be a further pain for people trying to apply to a university. It's difficult enough as it already is," said Jean-Bapiste Laloe, a French research associate in the Department of Physics at Cambridge University.
"It's not useful to filter applicants with the fear that they will use their science or engineering degrees to carry out terrorist attacks," he said. "Day-to-day interactions in a lab such as mine are closely monitored in an open and friendly way. Anything suspicious would be noticed immediately."