Thursday, September 17, 2009

Roth update

"From Ivory Tower to Iron Bars: Scientists Risk Jail Time for Violating Export Laws"


Sharon Weinberger

September 17th, 2009


John Reece Roth never thought he’d be going to prison for his research on plasma physics. But that’s precisely where the 72-year old University of Tennessee professor will likely spend the next four years.

Roth was sentenced last month for sharing his research with foreign graduate students and taking a laptop with his research to China. Along with his university research, he was working on an unclassified contract from the U.S. Force looking at ways to reduce drag on drones using plasma actuators.

The case has been closely watched by university professors working in areas that deal with controlled technical information, particularly satellite technology, which is classified as a munition. As I write in a recent article for Nature (apologies, behind a paywall):

Concerns over prosecution have even led some academics to self-censor when teaching, particularly in the area of satellites, which have been under the control of the state department since 1999. That shift, which was prompted by a satellite manufacturer illegally sharing technical data with China about the failure of a Long March rocket, had an immediate effect on university work in the area. “There are things I was once comfortable talking about in class, and I’m not comfortable with anymore,” says Thomas Zurbuchen, a professor of space science and aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

It’s a difficult subject: many people I interviewed felt Roth showed blatant disregard for the law — he was warned his work fell under the State Department’s munitions list — but they expressed deep frustration with the ambiguity of the laws.

Clif Burns, a lawyer at Bryan Cave, who contributes to the equally amusing and educational Export Law Blog, believes the Roth case is an anomaly — at least so far. Burns also told me that part of Roth’s particular problem was that he was sharing research with graduate students from the two countries of most concern to the United States: China and Iran.

“This was a double whammy,” he said.

J. Reece Roth case--new trial appeal

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