Reform Export and Visa Controls, Says Report

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Publication date: 
30 January 2009


A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences criticizes the nation’s export and visa control systems, characterizing them as “broken.”

Beyond “Fortress America” National Security Controls on Science and Technology in a Globalized World (here) asserts that “a growing number of leaders in academia, industry, and government now concur that the system… needs fundamental change.” This is the most recent report examining the relationship between the scientific community and the national security apparatus. Previous Academies’ reports on this subject include Scientific Communication and National Security (1982) and the more recent Science and Security in a Post 9/11 World (2007).

Beyond “Fortress America” finds that the current system of export controls, designed during the Cold War, stifle U.S. innovation and competitiveness, and “do not, in fact, improve national and homeland security.” Ameliorating the situation is difficult because “the executive and legislative branches of the federal government have failed to come to agreement… on dual-use export controls” for decades. At the same time, the nation’s status as the center of scientific inquiry has diminished as research is increasingly conducted elsewhere. The report also notes that “the best scientific talent from outside the U.S. has been and remains critical to the U.S. research and development enterprise,” and “access to this talent depends on visa policies that are welcoming….”

The Academies’ report offers three recommendations. First, “the President should restructure the export control process… so that the balancing of interests can be achieved more efficiently and harm can be prevented to the nation’s security and technology base; in addition to promoting U.S. economic competitiveness.” According to the report, a new controls regime should “articulate a rational basis for each restriction,” “treat weapons separately- but define them narrowly and precisely,” and “recognize the ‘global public good’ nature of health-related technologies” among other objectives. “Sunset” rules requiring an annual review are called for. The report also recommends the creation of two new administrative bodies to coordinate all export controls and act as an independent export license appeals panel. The National Security Council is said to be the ideal organizational location for these entities.

Second, “the President should direct that executive authorities under the Arms Export Control Act and the Export Administration Act be administered to assure the scientific and technological competitiveness of the U.S., which is a prerequisite for both national security and economic prosperity.” The report encourages the President to maintain the Fundamental Research Exemption provided by National Security Decision Directive 189, and create an economic competitiveness exemption for duel-use technologies available without restriction in the global market.

The final recommendation states, “The President should maintain and enhance access to the reservoir of human talent from foreign sources to strengthen the U.S. science and technology base.” To that end, the report urges the President to “streamline the visa process for credentialed short-term visitors in science and technology fields,” “extend the duration of stay for science and engineering graduates with advanced degrees,” include expert vouching by qualified U.S. scientists in the non-immigrant visa process for well-known scholars and researchers,” and “institute skills-based preferential processing with respect to visa applications.”

House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) called the report “a serious attempt to better understand the nature of the problem and offer recommendations for reform.” Gordon said that “there has been increasing evidence in recent years that the existing national security controls that regulate access to and export of science and technology are broken and need to be revised....”