Prism Magazine - Novmber 2001
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- By Dave Woodall

RESEARCH - Tight-lipped Labs

Federal regulations govern more of what we disclose to colleagues and students

artWe all know that publication of engineering and computer science research in peer-reviewed journals is the hallmark of a successful academic program. Indeed, every faculty member's career depends on finding the right technical journal for publication of research results. The reputation of an engineering college hinges largely on the regular publication of the work of faculty and students in prestigious technical journals.

However, there is a cloud on the horizon. It is the limitations imposed by federal regulation on the dissemination of some technical information. These restrictions do not just apply to “classified” information but to other categories of information that fall under the guidelines of U.S. Export Control law. The result is that we may not be able to freely discuss our best ideas with all of our colleagues and students. Every engineering faculty member should be aware of these restrictions and conduct his or her research activities within this framework.

The Wen Ho Lee case at Los Alamos has led the U.S. Department of Energy to impose new restrictions on the transfer of technical information to foreign nationals. While the D.O.E. is principally concerned with national security and the release of information related to the design and development of nuclear weapons, these restrictions are being applied much more broadly at the D.O.E. labs. This may lead to a certain amount of dissatisfaction among D.O.E. laboratory employees, who are no longer able to communicate freely, either within the lab or at national technical conferences, any time foreign nationals are present. It also can restrict the ability of our graduate students who are foreign nationals to get access to D.O.E. laboratory programs, such as summer employment and research appointments.

But, you ask, since there is little “classified information” present in the environment of an engineering school that allows for uncontrolled publication of research results in technical journals, what is the issue for us? There are two federal laws that affect our actions regarding technical information: the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), also called “eye-tar,” for control of defense technologies, and the Export Administration Regulations for control of “dual use” technologies. “Dual-use” technologies may have both civilian and military applications. Examples include computers, software, and special materials, which are materials that have different physical properties than expected. An example is steel that's much stronger than normal steel, and which might have a defense application.

ITAR was enacted to implement the Arms Export Control Act. These regulations have the purpose of controlling the export of defense articles and defense services to protect the citizens of the country. This seems well and good; however, according to the U.S. Munitions List, those items identified as needing control include a general category of “technical data.” The types of technical data that are to be controlled include many areas of typical engineering research.

The Export Administration Regulations' controlled technology list also involves many areas of active engineering research. Some examples are materials, chemicals, microorganisms, materials processing, electronics, computers, communications, telecommunications, optics, and lasers.

We are fortunate that there is an exclusion from the export control laws for “technical data” that is in the public domain. This exclusion allows for the unlimited distribution of fundamental research in science and engineering at accredited institutions of higher learning in the U.S. where the resulting information is ordinarily published and shared broadly in the scientific community. However, and here is the rub, if the work is restricted for proprietary reasons, such as work under contract to an industry sponsor, or has specific access and or dissemination rules, such as work under a U.S. government contract, it is no longer exempt. If you as principal investigator accept restrictions on publication of scientific or technical data in the terms of an industry contract, you may be subject to ITAR.

The implications for conducting research that has ITAR and export control restrictions is that information cannot be freely disseminated with colleagues, undergraduate students, or graduate students from certain countries— those on the “ITAR proscribed country” list, which is maintained by the U.S. Department of State. Such free dissemination of technical information is “deemed to be export.” The list of proscribed countries includes China, India, Pakistan, and Vietnam, among others. We often have students from these countries in our programs, so this export control restriction is an issue that we must carefully address.

As an employee of your university you are personally responsible for safeguarding sensitive and export-controlled technical data from disclosure to foreign nationals. It is recommended that you become familiar with ITAR and Export Control restrictions as they apply to your research activities, and carefully monitor your contract and grant documentation for your obligations under ITAR. The Defense Federal Acquisition Regulations in particular often contain ITAR requirements. Work with your college's associate dean for research or the director of your university's office of sponsored programs to learn about your obligations regarding export control and “eye-tar.”

Dave Woodall is the dean of the College of Science, Engineering and Mathematics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and a member of the Board of Directors of the ASEE Engineering Research Council.