Axelrod Updates Academic Research Efforts at BIS


Assistant Secretary for Export Enforcement Matthew S. Axelrod  reviewed his team's initiatives in the Research Community in a March 8th speech to the Academic Security and Counter Exploitation Program’s Seventh Annual Seminar. 

Edited for brevity, the full text can be retrieved [here].

Our research institutions are strongest and most productive when they collaborate with partners, including international ones. But at the same time, our open, collaborative research environment, which is the hallmark of American academia and one of its greatest sources of strength, also presents an inviting target for foreign adversaries who wish to exploit that environment and misappropriate our research.

In an age where you can share even the most sensitive and valuable research in an e-mail, over Zoom, or through visual inspection of certain manufacturing schematics, our research universities must be relentless in their efforts to protect themselves.

As the Assistant Secretary for Export Enforcement, I oversee a team of law enforcement agents and analysts focused on a singularly important mission: keeping our country’s most sensitive technologies out of the world’s most dangerous hands. One of our most important partners in this endeavor is academia.

Outreach Initiative to Expand

Last summer, we established a comprehensive effort – our “Academic Outreach Initiative– to help academic institutions maintain their open, collaborative research environment in a way that also protects them from national security risk.

Through this initiative, we have strategically prioritized our engagement with universities whose work gives them an elevated risk profile.

When we rolled out the Initiative, we identified twenty research institutions that either possess ties to foreign universities on the Entity List; host a strategic Department of Defense University Affiliated Research Center, also known as a UARC; or conduct research in sensitive technologies subject to the Export Administration Regulations.

We’re now working on identifying additional universities who meet one or more of these criteria, but who were not part of the initial group of twenty. We’ll be reaching out to them in the near future about joining the Initiative.   And if there’s an institution that meets one of the criteria and wants to reach out to us to join, we welcome that too.

Each of the twenty institutions has been assigned a dedicated “Outreach Agent,” a specific agent from their local BIS office who meets with them quarterly and serves as a resource and point of contact.

Over the past few months, we’ve also presented two different webinars to our partner institutions. The first focused on how export controls apply in academic settings and on ways to identify the national security threats facing universities. The second was a training on how best to conduct open-source research to better vet potential foreign partners.

This spring, we’ll be offering a broader training on regulatory requirements, including fundamental research in academic settings.

 Disruptive Technology Strike Force

Separate from our Academic Research Initiative, we recently launched a Disruptive Technology Strike Force with the Department of Justice, the FBI, and Homeland Security. The Strike Force’s goal is to protect critical technological assets from being acquired by nation-state adversaries.

The types of technologies that the Strike Force will focus on are ones where our research universities are playing a critical developmental role, including advanced semiconductors, supercomputing, quantum computing, hypersonics, and biosciences related to enhancing human performance like brain control interfaces.

The Strike Force will focus enforcement resources in locations across the country to protect cutting-edge research from misappropriation.

Allied Research Security Efforts

Allied countries with world-renowned research universities face the same quandary as American ones – how to protect sensitive research from theft and diversion by nation-state adversaries while maintaining an open research environment that encourages the free exchange of ideas. And just as we at the FBI and BIS are working through that quandary with American institutions, several allied governments are doing the same in their countries.

Take the United Kingdom. There, the government published guidance on how UK export controls apply to academic research and what academics should watch out for as they conduct research with overseas partners. As noted in their Higher Education Export Control Guide and Toolkit, awareness of and guidance on export controls should form an integral part of an academic institution’s research policies.

Similarly, the Australian government, in collaboration with their academic community, published the Guidelines to Counter Foreign Interference in the Australian University Sector, which were updated in 2021. The guidelines delineate four foundational elements for building resilience within a university: (1) governance and risk mitigation; (2) communication, training, and information sharing; (3) regular due diligence and risk assessments; and (4) cybersecurity.

The Canadian government has launched a “Safeguarding Your Research” portal, which provides information to the Canadian research community on how to safeguard their research and innovations. Canada also publishes a “Protect Your Research” guide, which is broken down by geographic region to reflect the nuances of each province and territory – highlighting specific industrial sectors, research institutions, and technology hubs in each place.

Additionally, in 2021, the Canadian government released its National Security Guidelines for Research Partnerships, which integrate national security considerations into the development, evaluation, and funding of research partnerships.

Fundamental research.

Scientific and technological breakthroughs are only possible because of foundational research that precedes those breakthroughs. Experimental and theoretical work must be shared, tested, and peer-reviewed. In the case of dual-use technology, the UK calls this “basic scientific research,” which is undertaken solely to obtain new knowledge of the fundamental principles of phenomena or observable facts. It is not directed towards a specific practical aim or goal.

Here, the term “fundamental research” refers to scientific and technical research that is intended for publication and widespread dissemination within the academic community. As long as researchers do not accept restrictions on publication for proprietary or national security reasons, the results of fundamental research are generally not subject to the Export Administration Regulations, or EAR.

Therefore, sharing technology or software that arises during, or results from, this research will likely not require a BIS export license.  The key word is “likely.”

There is sometimes a misconception among professors that any research destined to be published is wholly exempt from export controls because it qualifies as fundamental research. While this is true as a general matter, there are some important exceptions that I want everyone to be aware of.

I’ll touch on just two of those exceptions here – government-funded research and changes during the research cycle.

First, it is important to note that technology and software that is produced through a U.S. Government-funded research project might not be considered “fundamental research” if it is protected by government-imposed access and dissemination or other specific national security controls. These national security controls include prepublication review requirements, restrictions on publication or dissemination to non-U.S. citizens, or the restriction of participation in the project to U.S. citizens only.

And second, remember that just because your project falls within the definition of fundamental research at the outset, it does not mean that it will in the middle, or at the end, as publication decisions may shift.

As an example, take a project where at the beginning everyone intends that the research will be published without restrictions. The project is therefore considered fundamental research. But then, mid-project, someone sees a unique commercial use for the technology and decides that it is now proprietary information and will instead be protected.   

If that happens, it would no longer be considered fundamental research, would become subject to the EAR, and may require a BIS license. For this reason, an assessment should be made at every stage or development of a research project.

In summary, even if you are conducting fundamental research, you still may be required to obtain a license if your activities fall under one of the exceptions. The question of compliance does not just end once you determine that what you’re producing is considered fundamental research.

Instead, it comes down to the facts.

Each university research program is different. Each individual research project is different. The final determinations on fundamental research are fact specific. If you need assistance with this determination in your individual case, please reach out to your compliance team, your export control officer, and/or the BIS Office of Exporter Services. You can also choose to file an Advisory Opinion request. We have a lot of resources at your disposal so please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Matt's Maxim's

If I can impart three pieces of advice to those who work in academia, it would be this:

First, export controls should be everybody’s concern, not just something your compliance team thinks about. You – and I mean everyone at a university, including professors, research assistants, students, counsel, academic deans, etc. – should be thinking about how export controls fit into your roles and responsibilities.

You don’t need to be an expert on the EAR, but you do need to know how to spot red flags and when to reach out to your export control officer for further guidance.

Checking in with the export control officer could have prevented one Ivy League university from exporting various strains of animal pathogens without the required license to overseas research institutions in Canada, Belgium, France, and other countries. The items fell under chemical and biological weapons export controls that exist to keep the building blocks for these weapons out of the wrong hands.

University staff only realized their error during a subsequent training session on export controls. This type of unforced error – one that could have been avoided with a call to the right people at the outset – underscores how important it is that everyone think about how export controls may relate to your research and have procedures in place to guide your staff.

Second, you should always do a risk assessment before collaborating with international partners. We recommend vetting any potential partner in at least two different ways:

(1) through an open- source search, for example by using a search engine like Google, to see what is in the public domain; and

(2) checking the name of your potential partner against the Consolidated Screening List, which is a free online tool administered by the Commerce Department.

If you see any news articles, press releases, or NGO publications that link your potential partner to foreign military or defense projects, foreign intelligence or security services, or other end-users of concern, you should reach out to your compliance team, your export control officer, or BIS.

Third, as the Canadians say, “Protect your Research.” From a prudential standpoint, think about the purpose of your research and the motivations of your partners. You don’t want to risk your reputation by inadvertently partnering with someone who has nefarious intentions. And that’s true regardless of whether you’re engaged in fundamental research or not. We want you to have confidence in your collaborations and to make informed decisions concerning all of your research. If you have offers from foreign entities to purchase or invest in your research that seem too good to be true, listen to your gut and call your compliance team, your export control officer, or us at BIS.


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