Cautionary tale on export control: integrity of data

It used to be the case that researchers were expected to simply raise funds for compelling research, hire the right scientists to do the research and then present the data and publish.

The John Roth case is cautionary in that the rules have changed, at least for certain kinds of research.

At least in the US, there are export control rules that universities are still grappling with. If a faculty member has defense- or other national security-related projects and funding, he or she needs to be careful about who knows about the details of the study, has access to data and reports and the nationalities of students and postdocs working on the project. Moreover, researchers have to be careful not to take computer or any electronic storage devises with data subject to export control when traveling abroad.

The case of John Roth

John Reece Roth, 74 is the author of numerous papers and was a professor at the University of Tennessee. In 2003 Dr. Roth won a proposal to develop plasma actuators, a technology to be used in the Air Force. Although the contract had regulations forbidden foreign nationals to work on the project, a graduate student from China gained access to data and upon graduation, the Chinese graduate student was replaced by an Iranian national.

When consulting with the office of research, the division in charge of export control at the University of Tennessee, Dr. Roth explained that the subject of his research was part of public domain, therefore not export controlled. However, later on the office contacted Dr. Roth to say the data in question was indeed export controlled.

Ignoring the advice of the office of research, Dr. Roth took a laptop computer and a flash driver containing information about the project when traveled to China to lecture at universities about his project. It was never proved that anybody had accessed the information stored electronically; however both the Commerce and State Departments control the export of technology that is not available for the public.

Roth made serial mistakes involving violations of the Arms Export Control Act and is now facing prison time in what should have been golden retirement years from his university faculty job.

Morals of the story:

  1. Export control concerns are real and making a mistake can be very costly.
  2. Listen to your university administration’s advice.

To know more:

Office of Research, University of Tennessee.

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