A series of long-awaited reforms to the US export-control system, which President Barack Obama is set to announce on 31 August, will likely benefit defense manufacturers but leave research scientists and academics waiting in the wings for regulatory relief.
Currently, anyone distributing American military and dual-use materials and knowhow abroad is subject to a dizzying hodge-podge of regulations once intended to keep strategically useful technologies out of Soviet hands. A plan to update the Cold War-era system was announced earlier this year by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who described the current state of affairs as, “a byzantine amalgam of authorities, roles and missions scattered around different parts of the federal government.” This week’s announcement marks the beginning of a White House led effort to create a new export control regime.
According to an overview released on 30 August, the new system will be “tiered” to distinguish between high-technology items that should be subject to stricter controls, and less sensitive items that might be exported with greater ease. Those changes might eventually lead to the creation of a single control list, something that would help address confusion over which technologies are controlled and by which agency.
While defense and aerospace companies have long complained that overly restrictive export control on technology hurt their competitiveness by making it harder to sell their products abroad, universities have increasingly voiced concerns about being swept up in the control of “deemed exports,” meaning technical information and knowledge that is shared with foreign nationals, whether in the United States or abroad.
The idea that knowledge itself can be an export item lay at the heart of a controversy in 2008, when J. Reece Roth, a University of Tennessee plasma physicist, was found guilty of illegally sharing technical data with foreign graduate students, among other violations of U.S. export laws, and later sentenced to four years in prison. It’s unclear what, if any, reforms would have helped Roth, but other academics have expressed concern that confusion over what constitutes a deemed export could inadvertently place them on the wrong side of the law.
Asked by Nature earlier this year about the proposed reforms, Clif Burns, an export law attorney at the Washington, DC-based firm of Bryan Cave, said the deemed export issue doesn’t appear yet to be on the radar screen of government officials. “Most of the impact and benefit will involve manufacturers and exporters more so than universities and research institutions,” Burns said.
But universities appear to be welcoming the reforms as at least a promising start. “We are particularly pleased that the Administration’s proposals look to protect national security without disrupting university research that is critical to our long-term economic and national security,” said Robert M. Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities, in a statement released Monday, “and that the proposals are intended to ensure that the world’s best talent can participate openly in that research. “