US shooting itself in foot with S&T controls: study

A new US study shows that current American export controls on science and technology (S&T) are more harmful than helpful.

In “Beyond ‘Fortress America`: National Security Controls on Science and Technology in a Globalised World”, the US National Academy of Sciences argue that “many of these controls undermine our national and homeland security and stifle American engagement in the global economy, and in science and technology.

“These unintended consequences arise from policies that were crafted for an earlier era.”

The Academy warns that “in the name of maintaining superiority, the US now runs

the risk of becoming less secure, less competitive and less prosperous.”

The Academy says the current export controls and visa regulations that were crafted to meet conditions the US faced “over five decades ago”.

It says during the Cold War, the US was “the international centre of scientific knowledge and technology. US national security depended on maintaining the technological superiority of our military forces against the quantitatively superior military forces of the Soviet bloc.

“To help ensure its superiority, the United States established a system of national security controls to prevent the leakage of military-related goods and technologies, including so-called dual-use goods and technologies that could give military advantages to our adversaries.

“This system was codified in export, visa, and classification laws and regulations. In addition, the United States and our allies forged multilateral controls on the international transfer of militarily sensitive goods and technologies.

“While far from perfect, this system met the needs of the Cold War reality of a bipolar power struggle with a known and well-characterized enemy,” the Academy says in an executive summary of the study.

“Today, world conditions are very different. Our adversaries are diffuse; they range from sovereign states to small terrorist cells without state affiliation. There is no longer a consensus in the Western alliance about who its adversaries are or how they should be contained. Many of the most important technologies for continued military superiority originate in the commercial sector rather than in the military sector.

“Furthermore, such technological capabilities increasingly arise from scientific and engineering research taking place around the world, not just in the United States. Today, for example, the United States has lost its dominance in fields such as semi-conductor manufacturing.

“Several countries now rival the US in creating a climate that encourages and rewards business and scientific innovation. As economic conditions have improved in China, India, and other countries, many young people who would have come to the United States to study or work in science and technology now opt to stay home for their education or to return to their home country after graduate school in the United States.

“All these changes mean that American security and prosperity now depend on maintaining active engagement with worldwide developments in science and technology, and with the global economy.

“While the United States remains a world leader in advanced science and technology, it no longer dominates; it is now among the leaders. We are increasingly interdependent with the rest of the world. What is the United States doing to reap benefits from its increased interdependence?

“Instead of promoting engagement, the United States is required by our current system of controls to turn inward. Our visa controls have made it more difficult or less attractive for talented foreign professionals to come and learn what is great about this country, or to stay and help grow the American economy.

“Our export controls retard both the United States and its allies from sharing access to military technology, and handicap American business from competing globally.

“In the post-9/11 world, even if we could accept the costs associated with mistakenly turning away some of the brightest international students or accept the forfeit of some business growth opportunities in the interest of national and homeland security, these are not the only outcomes of current policies.

“Such policies also weaken relations with allies, reduce the capability and strength of America`s defense industrial base, and help to create foreign competitors that diminish US market share in critical technologies.”

The Academy says “this conclusion is not unique to this report. “Several of these ideas have appeared in reports by the National Academies and by others in the wider policy community over the last 25 years.”

The Academy laments that for “most of the last 20 years, the executive and legislative branches of the federal government have failed to come to agreement — either internally or with each other—on dual-use export control policy. “This failure has led to unnecessary vulnerabilities in our national security and in our economic competitiveness.”

They further note that in “almost all cases, the technology base that supports [the] national security also supports the high-technology sector of the civilian economy.”

As a result the “current list-based systems are unwieldy, slow, difficult to administer rationally, and are overly proscriptive given global developments in science and technology.”

Furthermore the “best practices that underpin successful competition in research and technology advancement are undermined by government regulation that restricts the flow of information and people participating in fundamental research.” These best practices include:

• Freedom of inquiry

• Freedom to pursue knowledge for its own sake

• Freedom to collaborate without limitation

• Pluralistic and meritocratic support of science

• Freedom to publish

The Academy says President Barack Obama has it in his authority to address the problem immediately and the report`s writers urge him to reform the export control process, ensure scientific and technological competitiveness and improve the non-immigrant visa system that regulates the entry into the United States of foreign science and engineering students, scholars, and professionals.

“In the [writers`] view, it is important to act immediately, within the boundaries of the president`s authority to ameliorate the policy logjam that is the unintended consequence of Congress`s inaction over dual-use export controls.

“An important caveat attaches to any discussion of changes in the current system of export controls: there is no ‘risk-free` solution. Today`s system is not risk-free either; in fact, it is arguably becoming more and more dangerous because the inclination to equate control with safety gives a false sense of security.”