Research Stakeholders Urge Caution in Creating Export Controls for ‘Emerging Technologies’

Share This

Publication date: 
22 January 2019

Scientific societies, university associations, and industry groups are urging the Commerce Department to tread carefully as it implements new export controls on “emerging technologies” deemed critical to national security, warning that establishing broad protections could stifle U.S. research and innovation.


Ion trap for quantum computer

An ion trap for a quantum computer. The U.S. government is currently assessing whether particular quantum computing technologies should be subject to new export controls.

(Image credit - Kai Hudek / IonQ)

The Department of Commerce has received over 200 responses to its request for input on ways to identify specific “emerging technologies” that should be subject to new export controls. The department plans to implement such controls on technologies that are deemed “essential to U.S. national security” to fulfill a requirement in the latest National Defense Authorization Act. In an advance notice of proposed rulemaking issued in November, the department expressed specific interest in identifying candidate technologies within 14 “representative” categories, including quantum information technology, advanced materials, and artificial intelligence, while specifically excluding the products of “fundamental research” from consideration.

Technology companies, universities, and a variety of interest groups were among those who responded to the notice. Comments from university associations and scientific societies expressed concerns about the possible implications for research activities, while stakeholders in private industry stressed that controls have the potential to hamper technological innovation. Many commenters warned against formulating broad regulations and offered their assistance in the rulemaking process.

University groups wary of controls encroaching on research  

A coalition of associations representing all major U.S. research universities and medical schools submitted a joint comment to the department.

They express appreciation that the new controls will not apply to fundamental research and urge the department to adopt a definition of “emerging technologies” that is tied to specific national security concerns. “Overly broad controls or vague controls will result in unnecessary regulations that will stifle scientific progress and impede research,” they warn.

The coalition recommends the department establish a definition that reflects “why the export control system exists and what it is designed to accomplish,” considering factors such as whether the technologies in question are already available in other countries. It also asks the government to avoid imposing worldwide controls whenever possible and instead to tailor the measures to concerns about particular countries.

Noting they “strongly endorse” the department working with its advisory committees to implement the controls, the coalition encourages it to seek out “adequate representation from the academic community.” It states the committee should include both leading researchers with expertise in the emerging technologies under consideration and university officials responsible for export control compliance. It also suggests academic experts be invited to participate when committee members do not have sufficient expertise in a given area.

Societies warn of potential workforce impacts

Comments on the rule by scientific societies also express appreciation for the department exempting fundamental research from consideration and raise concerns about how new export controls could nonetheless harm a wide range of R&D activities.

For instance, the American Association for the Advancement of Science urges the department to take care to prevent its controls from impinging on scientific research, while the Optical Society (OSA) stresses the potential consequences for the R&D workforce and technology development. OSA notes the society is concerned about export controls “reducing the ability to conduct advanced research and development in an open and collaborative environment; limiting innovation and inhibiting the revolutionizing steps required to mature technologies for market insertion; and preventing the acquisition and retention of skilled workers.”

Observing that “virtually every one” of the 14 technology areas identified in the notice is “in one way or another enabled by optics or photonics technologies,” OSA offers the cooperation of its industry members in evaluating different technologies for inclusion in new export controls. The society also expresses dissatisfaction with the short duration of the comment period, recommending the department suspend the rulemaking process until it undertakes a “thorough analysis and discussion with industry leaders.”

OSA, the American Physical Society, and several other organizations affiliated with the National Photonics Initiative also submitted a joint comment focusing specifically on quantum information science and technology. (OSA and APS are AIP Member Societies.) They argue that most quantum technologies are insufficiently mature to warrant export controls, excepting quantum sensors, which they state are “adequately” covered under existing controls.

The organizations express particular concern about the department treating quantum technologies as “deemed exports,” which would require employers to obtain an export license before allowing foreign nationals to work on controlled technologies in the U.S. They observe that the pool of researchers capable of working on quantum technologies is “very limited and highly international,” adding,

Non-US citizens are a vital portion of the research and workforce community for both universities and companies, including Chinese researchers. Limiting, by any measure, the availability of the few brilliant minds capable of keeping the U.S. in the lead in this highly competitive space could prevent the U.S. from being the first to produce technologies that fully realize the quantum advantage.

Accordingly, they urge the department to refrain from imposing export controls on quantum technologies except in narrow cases. They also request that the department not impose controls on non-quantum technologies that enable the development of quantum technologies. Noting that supply lines for such equipment are “increasingly international,” they argue that U.S. companies need to maintain reciprocity in trade to preserve access to them.

Several industry groups raised similar concerns. For instance, the National Venture Capital Association argues that adopting overly broad controls could have “devastating consequences for the innovation economy.” For instance, it states that acquiring licenses to satisfy deemed export controls would “present a tremendous burden for small, high-growth startups that often build teams by attracting the best and brightest from foreign countries.”

In a lengthy comment, IBM notes that while it has advocated for new export controls on a “narrow list” of emerging technologies, it is concerned that many categories of interest to the department include “longstanding and widely used technologies with global availability.” IBM urges the department to focus controls on specific, non-commercial applications and stresses that the department’s mandate to continually evaluate emerging technologies will require significant resources.

In “nascent” fields such as quantum computing, IBM recommends the department adopt a “do no harm principle” to ensure that companies maintain access to relevant technologies and commercial opportunities. IBM warns that the recently enacted National Quantum Initiative Act could be “rendered ineffective” if the controls are too restrictive.

About the author

aschwarber [at]
+1 301-209-3083

Explore FYI topics: