Print

Stanford president urges lawmakers to change export controls

President Hennessy told a congressional panel that the country risks losing its competitive edge unless Cold War-era export control laws are revamped.

BY ADAM GORLICK

Stanford President John Hennessy told federal lawmakers on Friday that restrictions on technology exports are hampering research at the university and hurting American innovation.

At a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee held on campus, Hennessy said Cold War-era rules meant to prevent technological and scientific advances from falling into enemy hands need to be rewritten. He said export control laws should better reflect the modern realities of worldwide scientific collaboration while still protecting national security interests.

If they don't, the country risks losing its competitive edge to other countries, he said.

"Thirty years ago, the United States dominated in many fields of science and technology," Hennessy said. "Today, the United States is still the overall leader, but in many fields we are one of the leaders rather than the sole leader. And in a few fields … the United States is arguably not at the top."

Hennessy's remarks come as the committee chairman, Rep. Howard Berman, is crafting legislation to revamp export control laws. President Obama has also ordered a review of the regulations – some of which went on the books in 1949 to restrict the international transfer of goods and technologies that have legitimate commercial use but also can be used militarily.

L.A. Cicero Stanford President John Hennessy told the committee that outdated export controls have stifled research and threatened to turn international students away from promising careers in the United States.

Stanford President John Hennessy told the committee that outdated export controls have stifled research and threatened to turn international students away from promising careers in the United States.

"There is a growing consensus among security experts as well as academics and industry leaders that our current system of export controls needs to be updated in order to continue protecting sensitive technologies while also maintaining U.S. technological leadership," said Berman, (D-Calif.)

Berman was joined at Friday's hearing by fellow committee member Dana Rohrabacher, (R-Calif.,) and two congresswomen from California – Zoe Lofgren, chair of the state's Democratic congressional delegation, and Anna Eshoo, a Democrat who sits on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

The lawmakers stressed that while export controls need to be overhauled to spur innovation, they cannot be loosened to the point where information and technology about weaponry and sensitive national security issues are easily swapped with other countries.

"Our goal should be to design national security controls without negatively impacting our ability to conduct fundamental research that can benefit the United States economically and militarily," Hennessy said. He later added: "None of us is naïve about the issues we face here. We understand there are real challenges."

Export controls govern more than international trade. They also restrict who can have access to American technology.

And that's been a complication at Stanford, where 32 percent of graduate students are from other countries and more than half of the international PhD students are in engineering and the physical sciences.

L.A. Cicero Among the lawmakers at the hearing were (from left) Zoe Lofgren, committee chairman Howard Berman, and Dana Rohrabacher.

Among the lawmakers at the hearing were (from left) Zoe Lofgren, committee chairman Howard Berman, and Dana Rohrabacher.

Hennessy cited three examples of how the outdated laws have stifled research at Stanford and threaten to turn international students away from promising careers in America.

In one, he said, a team of Stanford researchers had to pull back on their contributions to developing a microchip that simulates the human brain when they realized that export-controlled technology was central to their work. The team included students from China, and the regulations prohibited them from participating.

"Stanford does not, nor will it, discriminate between its students or disadvantage them on the basis of citizenship," Hennessy said. He said the regulations meant the research team's involvement in the project was "greatly reduced."

Other researchers testing Einstein's theory of relativity designed an orbiting instrument, Gravity Probe B, which was sent aloft aboard a satellite. The device has no military use and its blueprints are openly published. But because satellites are classified as munitions under export controls, the researchers are prohibited from assisting foreign scholars who want to evaluate its performance, Hennessy said.

And one professor creating a vaccine scrapped his research when he was told the non-pathogenic organism he was working with required lab personnel to undergo enhanced security and background checks.

The professor "viewed this as incompatible with his research approach," Hennessy said. "He ended up destroying the organism and stopped working in the area," Hennessy said. "The result was clearly a net loss for our country."

Hennessy's points were bolstered by testimony given by William Potter, the director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, and Karen Murphy, a senior director for semiconductor manufacturer Applied Materials.

Hennessy has been at the forefront of export control reform for some time. He is co-chair of the National Research Council's Committee on Science, Security and Prosperity, which issued a report last year recommending changes to the laws.