Draft legislation has been introduced into the US Congress to remove a longstanding impediment to international collaboration by lifting tariff restrictions on pieces of large scientific instruments brought into the United States from other countries.
The bill was introduced last month by James Sensenbrenner (Republican, Wisconsin), chairman of the US House of Representatives Science Committee.
Projects affected include one of two Gemini telescopes now under construction in Hawaii. The US Customs Service originally ruled that a mirror, manufactured in the United States but sent to France for polishing, could not re-enter the country without duty being paid. But Congress passed legislation last year to waive the tariff, saving Gemini $1.8 million, according to Richard Malow of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, the consortium managing the project.
Similar problems have faced the Large Binocular Telescope project in Arizona and the Department of Energy's Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility in Newport News, Virginia.
Sensenbrenner's bill is designed to amend the language of the Florence Agreement governing the import of items of educational, scientific or cultural benefit. Duty-free status would extend not just to whole instruments but also to components, when “the instrument or apparatus, due to its size and complexity, cannot be imported in its assembled state”. The Florence Agreement dates back to the 1960s. According to one Customs Service official, “They didn't foresee these huge instruments you couldn't possibly bring in whole.”
The current regulation clearly exempts components from duty-free status, so the only way to solve the problem is with new legislation. But the Commerce Department would still have to rule that there is no US equivalent for the part being imported.
Within days of introducing the bill, Sensenbrenner received a congratulatory letter from Burton Richter, director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in California, saying the legislation would help smooth collaboration on the centre's B-factory particle collider. International partners are picking up some 40 per cent of the cost of the instrument. “They, and we, have been very worried about the possibility that tariffs will be assessed on their contribution, which would raise the cost of the detector significantly,” Richter wrote.
The bill has been referred to the House Ways and Means Committee for consideration, and Malow expects it eventually to pass.