A Scientist in Washington
SPIE Past President James A. Harrington shares his experience as a recent Jefferson Science Fellow.
01 October 2006
James A. Harrington
In 1999 the U.S. Secretary of State asked the National Research Council (NRC) for suggestions on how it could better deal with foreign policy issues that involve science, technology, and health. The report issued by the NRC stated the pressing need for more scientists and engineers within the Department of State.
To address this need, George Atkinson, Science Advisor to the Secretary of State, initiated the Jefferson Science Fellowship program in 2004 to bring tenured faculty members from U.S. academic institutions to work at the Department of State for one year.
I have just completed my year as a Jefferson Science Fellow helping to advise the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation on export control of high technology goods. Specifically, I have worked as a technical advisor in the Office of Conventional Arms and Threat Reduction engaged in international negotiations that establish export control regulations related to cutting-edge dual-use goods and technologies. Dual-use goods are those that have both military and non-military applications.
The controls are established by the 40 countries that make up the Wassenaar Arrangement (WA), which meets in Vienna, Austria, three times each year. During my year I have been exposed to controls for many of the goods and associated technologies covered in the WA, including advanced materials, materials processing, electronics, computers, telecommunications, sensors and lasers, navigation and avionics, marine, and propulsion. Clearly it is not possible to have the background depth to work effectively in all of these categories, so I concentrated on the new controls proposed for detectors, lasers, and superconductors.
While the Department of State is the lead WA negotiator for the United States, the determination of whether an item should be controlled or not is a joint effort between State and the Department of Defense and the Department of Commerce. Defense is normally quite conservative when it comes to releasing control of items that may be used by the non-WA countries for military purposes.
Commerce, however, has to be concerned with security as well as keeping U.S. industry competitive abroad. An excellent example of the dichotomy between Defense and Commerce is the control of low-light-level detectors that may be used in night vision equipment. Defense wishes to control these sensitive infrared detectors and associated cameras, while Commerce does not want to restrict the sale of low-light-level cameras used for scientific purposes. One of my duties has been to help structure export controls that will decontrol non-military cameras yet prevent unlicensed sale of the new breed of highly sensitive detectors.
Recently I have been asked to chair the Department of State's international technical working group on lasers. Lasers are currently controlled in terms of the type of laser, but now there is a proposal to virtually rewrite the existing controls in terms of performance parameters rather than a specific laser type. My general background in lasers has helped me work with the United States and international delegations to refine the controls on lasers.
I have been fortunate this year to work with so many scientists, engineers, and policy personnel from State, Defense, Commerce, and industry. I have seen first hand the importance of science in the development of a sound foreign policy.
Clearly there is an important role for a scientist at State, yet I have learned that even though the science may be straightforward, the path to achieving the final export controls is often filled with diplomatic potholes. I have found that this just makes the job all the more interesting.
James A. Harrington
James A. Harrington, SPIE past president, served as one of five Jefferson Science Fellows at the U.S. Department of State this past year. For more information about the fellowship program, visit www7.nationalacademies.org/jefferson.