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Feds: Guard Research Better

By Ronald K. Kamdem, Contributing Writer

Universities might not be doing enough to guard “sensitive information” in their research labs, “potentially putting at risk U.S. national security interests,” according to a federal audit released this week.

The audit, from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), suggests that schools receiving Defense Department funding aren’t doing enough to guard their gadgets from foreign countries and terrorists.

Though it wasn’t mentioned by name in the report, Harvard received $21.9 million in Defense Department research funding in the 2005 fiscal year, the most recent year for which data is available, according to a University report.

The auditors’ concerns arise from federal laws that generally require researchers to obtain “export licensing for defense-related items and information, including data.”

The Bureau of Industry and Security, a Commerce Department agency, handles about 1,000 such requests annually. But Commerce officials told the auditors that only two universities have submitted license applications in recent years. They did not name the schools.

The auditors want to know why universities aren’t applying for licensing in greater numbers—especially considering that so many schools are engaged in defense-related research and thus theoretically are producing findings that should be subject to export controls.

The report also noted that over 55 percent of engineering doctoral candidates in the U.S. are foreign-born. And while “their research helps strengthen the United States in the fastest-moving new technologies,” according to the report, the statistic also means that non-citizens are engaged in sensitive defense-related research.

The auditors told Commerce and State Department officials to up their efforts “to ensure that universities understand when to apply export controls.”

Harvard’s chief lobbyist responded favorably to the report’s recommendations.

“The commission is striking an appropriate bound between regulation and allowing the rapid exchange of information that leads to innovation,” said the senior director of federal and state relations, Kevin Casey, in a phone interview.

According to Casey, Harvard not only strongly adheres to export control policies, but it trains its students in compliance as well.

“Over the past couple years, we have focused on internal outreach and education programs that teach research students how to abide by export control regulations through close interaction with professors,” Casey said.

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