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Published: Sunday, 1/18/2009

Remove techno-trade barrier

IT'S not a bailout proposal or a stimulus package, but a report issued by the National Academy of Sciences has long-range economic implications of similar scale.

At issue is America's competitiveness in the high-tech field and how the country is hurting itself by retaining Cold War-era regulations on high-tech exports, as well as restrictions on immigration by foreign scientists and engineers.

The result, said the panel headed by Stanford president John Hennessy, is that the nation's technical growth and innovation has been unnecessarily hampered, putting the United States at a disadvantage in the global economy. The electrical engineer said government has failed to distinguish between technology that could really pose a fundamental threat, such as anything to do with nuclear weapons, and technologies that are broadly available.

"In some cases," he said, "we have technologies that go on our export-control list that are legally available outside the United States in unrestricted form." Years ago, the researchers said, when America was the undisputed world leader across the technical spectrum, restricting foreigners' access to strategically important technology was probably useful.

But now, the report concludes, those same rules are contributing to the country's shrinking dominance in scientific and engineering advances even as militarily useful technology is drawn increasingly from civilian research. Brent Scowcroft, who co-chaired the group, said the current regulations limited essential collaboration of American scientists and engineers with colleagues from other countries.

Mr. Scowcroft, who was national security adviser to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, is adamant that the status quo is "harming our national security by harming our economy." He also believes government should assume technology is eligible for export unless shown to be a danger, rather than requiring would-be exporters to prove the opposite.

That has the effect, said panel members, of inhibiting companies from even going into certain useful and or profitable technologies. When he takes office, the experts urge, President-elect Barack Obama should change or scrap many of the rules they call outdated and allow more skilled workers to enter and remain in the country.

The group designed recommendations that could be implemented at once by executive order. Consideration of the proposed changes should be among the first orders of business by the new administration.



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