(Washington, DC) – Today the Committee on Science and Technology held a hearing to review the impacts of current export control policies on U.S. science and technology activities and competitiveness. Witnesses and Members also discussed the findings and recommendations of the National Academies’ study, Beyond “Fortress America”: National Security Controls on Science and Technology in a Globalized World.

“Our nation’s export controls were supposed to help strengthen our national security, by protecting America’s sensitive technologies from falling into the wrong hands,” said Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN). “However, in recent years there has been a growing chorus of concern that the current system of export controls is undermining our nation’s competitiveness in the global economy, undermining our science and technology enterprise, and weakening our national security–not strengthening it.”

“Export control is not a subject that Americans discuss around the dinner table, but it does affect every one of us, said Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics Chairwoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ). “It is essential that we develop balanced policies that will not unduly constrain American companies in the global marketplace, but still protect our most sensitive technologies from falling into the hands of potential enemies.”

The hearing focused on export controls of dual-use items–those that have military and as well commercial applications–including software and technology.

The current system of export controls requires an institution, such as a company or university, to apply for an export control license to export controlled hardware or software, for example, as part of an international space research mission or sale of a product or components abroad. The institution may also need to obtain a license to share designs, conduct training related to the controlled item, or discuss information about the item with non-U.S. individuals.

Export control licenses require a significant review and interagency approval process that may take months. In addition, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) commented that by late 2006, “State’s backlog of applications reached its highest level of more than 10,000 open cases.”

“These delays mean that commercial companies may lose the opportunity to respond to a bid while waiting for a license, and that government projects may be delayed and incur cost increases,” said Gordon.

Other impacts of export controls pertain to researchers who may be unsure about whether to discuss ideas or research equipment with foreign colleagues at an international conference for fear of inadvertently transmitting controlled information. Failure to comply can carry fines and criminal penalties.

While all of the witnesses recognized the importance of protecting our national security, they expressed concern that the current system of export controls is actually weakening that security. As Chairman Gordon noted in quoting the National Academies report, Beyond “Fortress America”:

“The export controls and visa regulations that were crafted to meet conditions the United States faced over five decades ago now quietly undermine our national security and our national economic wellbeing.”

Witnesses also discussed the National Academies’ report, which identifies a number of specific findings that argue for revamping the current export control systems, including:

  • “U.S. national security, including the protection of the homeland, is not well served by the current controls.
  • The single technology base that today supports both U.S. commercial and military capabilities is constrained from expanding into new fields and from applying new scientific developments.
  • Entire international markets are denied to U.S. companies because they are forbidden to ship their technologically sophisticated products to foreign countries.
  • Obsolete lists of controlled components prevent U.S. companies from exporting products built from prior generation technologies not likely to harm national security.
  • U.S. scientists are hobbled by rules that prevent them from working with world-class foreign scientists and with advanced laboratories located overseas, making it less likely that valuable discoveries and inventions will occur in the U.S.
  • The government’s rules are driving jobs abroad–knowledge-intensive jobs critical to the future of the U.S. economy.
  • The government’s rules are accelerating the development of technologies in capable research centers outside the U.S.”

The report also recommended that President Obama issue an Executive Order early in his Administration that addresses the National Academies committee’s recommendations.

The House-passed NASA Authorization Act of 2008 (H.R. 6063) included the requirement for a comprehensive study of the impact of current export control policies on our civil and commercial aerospace activities, to be conducted by the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

“An OSTP review is important,” said Gordon. “While that provision did not make it into the final public law, I am hopeful that such a study will be initiated separately.”

For more information, please see the Committee’s website.