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Democracies Should Consider New Export Controls on Tech 'Talent,' Researchers Say

Western democracies should pursue new restrictions on technology researchers or risk further falling behind China in global technological competition, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute said in a report that it released this week. The institute warned that China’s dominant research position could allow that country to “gain a stranglehold on the global supply of certain critical technologies.”

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ASPI said China’s lead should be a “wake-up call” for democratic nations, which should double down on preventing illegal technology transfers and make it easier for foreign talent from friendly nations to conduct technology research across borders. Without more technology cooperation among the U.S. and allies, China will continue its “stunning” lead or surpass the U.S. in a range of sensitive sectors, researchers said, including in artificial intelligence, advanced materials and quantum technology, ASPI said.

Although the paper doesn’t argue for item-specific export restrictions, it does suggest placing new “export controls on talent,” adding that countries need to examine new, “narrow limits on the movements of researchers with expertise in certain critical technology topics.” Although those restrictions are “considered controversial,” it also said the “knowledge and skills” of scientists “are extremely valuable and can unlock technology innovation in a range of critical areas.”

Restrictions should be imposed, for example, to stop top researchers from being recruited to lead cyber, nuclear or defense technology programs in Russia, China or Iran, the report said, three countries already subject to strict U.S. export license requirements. Those restrictions would “need to be balanced against an individual’s right to freedom of movement,” the paper said, and should “require a serious national-security risk to be clearly identified and be designed to be as minimally invasive as possible.”

Countries can also use “entity lists” to “clearly outline specific countries and research areas to which these limitations apply so that there’s no ambiguity,” ASPI said, specifically pointing to U.S. use of export controls and its October restrictions on semiconductor-related exports to China (see 2210070049). Those controls included restrictions on certain U.S. persons’ activities in China’s chip industry (see 2301270026).

The U.S. and other countries should also increase “vigilance” in visa screening programs to “limit illegal technology transfers,” the report said. Screening should be especially strict for foreign people with ties to defense research organizations associated with “non-partner governments” and for people involved in “foreign technology transfer programs.”

Visa screening shouldn’t be a “one-time assessment,” ASPI said, adding governments should work with universities to establish best practices for limiting “foreign interference” in their research programs.” The Bureau of Industry and Security last year announced a university outreach program to try to better work with schools working on sensitive technologies. That outreach effort included letters to universities sent by BIS Undersecretary Alan Estevez, who “strongly” encouraged school officials to contact the agency for “one-on-one counseling” or other compliance guidance, according to redacted copies of the letters released by BIS last month.

ASPI also said Australia, India, Japan, the U.S., the U.K. and others should create new “reciprocal technology visa programs.” These programs would allow researchers to freely move between the countries and work on sensitive technologies, the report said, and visa recipients could be provided “preferential pathways” to citizenship at the end of their studies.