Moving In the Right Direction on Export Controls

September 02, 2010

By Rachel Banks

President Obama announced this week that the administration will take action soon to overhaul U.S. export control policy to, as the president put it, "focus our resources on the threats that matter most, and help us work more effectively with our allies in the field.” We applaud this move – the need for change is long overdue.

The administration’s plan to review and overhaul the system was first outlined in a speech delivered by Defense Secretary Robert Gates in the spring. Last updated in 1979, the current system is ill-suited to the pace of modern research and development. Gates describes it as a “byzantine amalgam of authorities, roles, and missions” – prone to creating confusion and increasing the likelihood of mistakes and duplication, even jeopardizing the ability of the U.S. military and other agencies to protect American citizens.

The overhaul is intended to streamline the system by which the government restricts the export of certain technological information to foreign parties. It will eliminate duplication among the various agencies involved with export control licensing (namely the Departments of Commerce and State), create a single set of licensing policies, and establish an Export Enforcement Coordination Center to coordinate and strengthen the U.S. government's enforcement efforts (the administration will need Congress’ help to enact the last two reforms).

How does this relate to international education and exchange? Modern research and development is a global enterprise, and our nation's research universities, engaged in vital cutting-edge research on a daily basis in often sensitive scientific areas, rely heavily on the ability to attract talented students and scholars from around the world. Statistics from the National Science Foundation show that in 2007, half or more of doctoral degrees awarded by U.S. universities in engineering, physics, mathematics, computer sciences, and economics went to foreign students, and around 40 percent of postdoctoral positions in science and engineering are filled by non-U.S. citizens.

A significant portion of the research taking place at universities is federally funded. In situations when the research is sensitive in nature and a foreign student or scholar is involved in the project, the institution is required to apply for a deemed export control license to ensure that the knowledge or technology in question does not fall into the hands of individuals or organizations that wish to do harm to Americans. The problem is that the current process lacks clarity and is cumbersome and bureaucratic. As Gates himself points out, many promising young scientists are choosing to pursue their careers in other countries because of the limitations imposed by outdated and unnecessary export controls.

We would urge the President to conduct a similar interagency review of the visa and immigration regime, which governs the ability of foreign students and scholars to come to the United States. Such a review would very likely uncover many of the same problems that this one did – a lack of coordination, outdated and in some cases unnecessary controls, and excessive red tape that deters the very people we want to attract.