Proposed changes to an obscure set of export rules could derail US research, say academic and industrial groups, who are now frantically trying to raise the alarm among scientists.

The modified rules would require academic researchers from countries including China and India to obtain a government licence before operating a wide range of lab equipment in the United States. In a 22 April letter to university department chairs, Judy Franz, executive officer of the American Physical Society, warned that the changes constitute a “potential threat to research”. And this week, the National Academies are convening a special workshop to inform scientists of the proposed changes.

At issue is a set of rules governing the export of sensitive technologies. Known as the Export Administration Regulations, the rules are meant to limit the transfer of equipment that could advance the military might of ‘countries of concern’ — a list that includes China, India, Pakistan and Russia. The regulations also require researchers from these countries working with some items of equipment to obtain a licence from the US Department of Commerce.

Dye lasers are one type of equipment that nationals from some countries may need a licence to use. Credit: A. TSIARAS/SPL

Traditionally, universities have thought themselves exempt from the regulations. But a March 2004 report from the Department of Commerce's Office of Inspector General, an independent watchdog, argued that the regulations do apply to academic labs. The report also proposed expanding the criteria under which a licence would be required for using controlled equipment, and applying the rules by country of birth rather than country of citizenship (see Nature 431, 615; 2004).

The 45-page equipment list includes common lab apparatus such as lasers and sealed glove boxes for handling hazardous material. Getting a licence for each potential user would overwhelm lab supervisors, warns Dan Mote, president of the University of Maryland, who is scheduled to talk at a National Academies workshop. “This really is potentially devastating,” he says. “It's quite conceivable that this would just bring work to a halt.”

Industry is also concerned, according to Cynthia Johnson, director of government relations for Texas Instruments, a major US semiconductor manufacturer. Although industrial labs already have to comply with the rules, the proposal to base the regulations on a researcher's country of birth rather than citizenship could alienate fresh talent, she says.

Department of Commerce officials stress that they are still far from making a final decision about how to modify the rules. “What we are doing is seeking input,” says Peter Lichtenbaum, assistant secretary for export administration.

That is why it is important for researchers to weigh in with their objections, says Arthur Bienenstock, a physicist and dean of research and graduate policy at Stanford University in California. “What the Department of Commerce needs is an honest assessment of what it would mean if the inspector-general's rules were implemented,” he says. The comment period closes on 27 May.