New Rules Due on US Technology Transfer
Technology leadership is key to national security, says senior Commerce official
WASHINGTON, DC - 12/27/05 - Critical to the success of the US technology sector "is the question of how America's businesses and universities can retain access to the world's best brains while ensuring that sensitive knowledge gained by foreign visitors is not used against us," according to US Department of Commerce Undersecretary David McCormick.
"The contest for US national security and prosperity is increasingly being waged on the battleground of technology leadership," he said in a by-lined article published in a recent edition of The Financial Times.
That contest, he said, "is a difficult balance to strike with some argue that maintaining America's technological leadership requires minimizing controls on the transfer of sensitive knowledge to foreign researchers."
"Others," he said, "believe it is critical to restrict further foreign access to US technological breakthroughs. The way we answer such questions will have a profound effect on our future."
According to McCormick, controls on the export of sensitive technologies have been viewed as a trade-off between commerce and security.
"However, whether it is a question of exporting technology or transferring knowledge, this is a false choice," he said. "Consider the high-tech know-how behind advanced composites, night vision or avionics. Few would dispute the importance of leadership in these areas to US security."
Unless carefully crafted, however, policies intended to "protect" such technologies "could reduce US production of them, thereby eroding the leadership we seek to preserve."
Technology leadership "is the key to prosperity and security," and America remains the world's high-tech leader.
But, as highlighted by a recent report from the National Academy of Science, the US lead in science and technology "is not guaranteed," he said, adding "the nation must prepare with great urgency to preserve its strategic and economic security."
Whether measured by the number of science and engineering degrees, the growth in patent applications or the authorship of journal articles, the gap is closing, he said, alluding to figures showing that Asian universities produce 47% of engineering graduates worldwide, while foreign-born inventors account for nearly half of US patents.
Over the past five years, McCormick said, the Bush Administration has worked with Congress to increase federal education funding by 33%, with a special emphasis on the next generation of innovators.
During the same period, federal research and development funding has increased by almost half to $132 billion.
"Yet, even with this investment in the future, the US must be able to draw on the world's best minds. America's research capabilities benefit from the talents of foreign citizens," said McCormick.
In 2001, foreign-born scholars held nearly 57% of science and engineering postdoctoral positions at US universities, while 38% of doctoral-level employees in technical firms are foreign-born.
While such openness is an asset, it also poses grave and growing risks that sensitive technology will be obtained by nations or terrorists who would do us harm.
"More than 90 countries target sensitive US technologies. Many employ collection techniques that . . . include tasking visiting businessmen, scientists, foreign students, trade shows and debriefing visitors upon their return home," said McCormick, citing the 2005 National Counter-Intelligence Strategy Report.
The White House, he said, has developed an approach to the issue "that reconciles the critical need for foreign nationals in scientific progress with the requirement for vigilance against the risks posed by the uncontrolled release of technology."
The Department of Commerce is expected to make public soon a policy basing controls on access to sensitive technology on a foreign national's most recent country of citizenship or permanent residency, not country of birth.
"We believe that by acquiring permanent residency or citizenship in another country, foreign nationals have demonstrated strong ties to their adopted country and are subject to rigorous screening processes by our closest allies," said McCormick.
"The US will continue to deny the transfer of sensitive technology to foreign nationals who could pose risks to national security. Successfully implementing this solution - and addressing similar critical issues in the future - will require new levels of collaboration. Old ways of thinking no longer apply."
Protecting national security, while continuing to be the world's research and development powerhouse, "must become the priority of industry and academia, as well as government," he said.
The "end of this debate is in sight, but the ongoing struggle for technology leadership looms large" and the US "must find ways to keep our doors open to the world's best talent while protecting against real threats to our homeland," concluded McCormick.
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