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National Security Controls on Science & Technology are Broken & Should be Restructured

Many U.S. export and visa controls, developed during the Cold War era to prevent the transfer of technological and scientific advances to our enemies, now harm U.S. national security and economic prosperity.

by The National Academies
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Many U.S. export and visa controls, developed during the Cold War era to prevent the transfer of technological and scientific advances to our enemies, now harm U.S. national security and economic prosperity, says a new report from the National Research Council. Immediate executive action is needed to restructure this system to prevent further declines in U.S. scientific and technological competitiveness.

The current system of export controls and visa regulations uses a series of lists to inform the licensing decisions of the departments of State and Commerce. Items are regularly added to the lists but rarely taken off. According to the report, this list-based system has become a "technological Maginot Line."

Due to restrictions on the transfer of military technology, current export controls slow maintenance of military equipment, discourage foreign defense contractors from purchasing U.S. equipment, and hamper international trade that could provide valuable information on the technical capabilities of foreign militaries. In business, U.S. restrictions provide a road map for foreign competitors, highlighting the specific technologies and products in which other countries should invest research dollars. Visa controls and "deemed export controls," the transfer of dual-use technology or source code to foreign nationals within the U.S., have made U.S. laboratories and universities less attractive to foreign researchers and have helped drive knowledge-intensive jobs overseas. Significant changes are needed to create a system that is protective of both national security and economic prosperity.

To ensure that the U.S. has access to the most talented scientists, the visa application process should incorporate skills-based preferential processing and should be streamlined so that legitimate foreign researchers and students have an easier time entering the United States. Student visas should be extended so that recent graduates have time to find work with U.S.-based employers, and qualified U.S. scientists should be allowed to vouch for the technical credibility and legitimacy of visa applicants in their field as a means of aiding consular officials and expediting the application process.

Rather than abandoning all export controls on goods and technologies, the report recommends retaining the controls that work and eliminating those that do not. There should be specific principles to determine which goods or technologies are placed on the export control lists, and attempts to regulate the export of dual-use items should be cautious, with the burden of proof placed on those attempting to restrict access. The report also recommends the creation of an economic competitiveness exemption that would eliminate export controls on dual-use technologies legally available on the global open market. A "sunset" rule should be put in place so that items on the export control lists are removed after a specified amount of time unless a justification is presented for maintaining their restriction.

The report recommends the creation of two new entities to make the export control process run more smoothly and to resolve disputes when they occur. A Coordinating Center for Export Controls would coordinate interactions with businesses or universities seeking export licenses and manage agency processes with respect to granting or denying export licenses. An Export License Appeals Panel, comprised of active or retired federal judges, would hear disputes on licensing decisions and "sunset" requirements. The report suggests placing both entities within the National Security Council structure, with the director of the Coordinating Center reporting to the national security adviser.

Once implemented, these steps could quickly begin to reverse the damage that has been done to U.S. national security and economic competitiveness. These recommendations are first steps in a process that will eventually require legislative reform.