Secrets Not Shared?

U.S. investigates professor’s research activities, raising issues of academic freedom, xenophobia and foreign relations.
July 12, 2006

The federal government has long supported one professor’s pioneering plasma research, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in research contracts. But now it is investigating whether he illegally shared his ideas internationally, which he fervently insists he did not do.

J. Reece Roth has been a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville since 1978. He recently retired, but continues teaching and leading groundbreaking research in the industrial plasma field, an area of special interest to military aeronautics specialists. The professor has written a hailed textbook on applications of plasma, and he has received patents for a variety of complex technologies, including methods for using plasma to make parts of planes and rockets more aerodynamic.

Roth currently supervises the Plasma Sciences Laboratory at the university. Over the past 10 years, the program has been funded by contracts from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the National Science Foundation, the NASA-Langley Research Center and a variety of other governmental agencies and research companies.

But government officials have recently determined that Roth deserves scrutiny for how he has carried out his research activities. He says that upon returning from a lecture tour in China in May, officials of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Commerce detained him at the Detroit airport, seized several documents he had with him, and made photocopies of the contents of his wallet, including his driver’s license and Social Security card. With court warrants in hand, they later took electronic and printed documents from Roth’s office and laboratory, including more than one laptop, officials at Tennessee have confirmed.

“I could hardly believe it,” Roth said Tuesday, from his vacation home in Maine. “This whole imbroglio has such heavy police state overtures.” He estimates that 35 research-related items were taken from his office and nearly 20 from his laboratory. He also told the federal investigators that he had not discussed any sensitive information while traveling in China, nor shared any information that could be deemed classified with foreign or American students.

Roth and other university officials have been told that the rationale for these actions involve the Arms Export Control Act, a federal law that bars U.S. citizens from sharing or transferring sensitive technology to other countries. The idea behind the law is to prevent high-tech information from being shared with foreign countries that may have military interests that clash with those of the U.S.

No one in the government has formally accused Roth of sharing secrets that could aid foreign nations. But an important piece of the investigative puzzle, according to some university officials, may involve the nationality of one of his graduate research assistants, Xin Dai, a Chinese-born doctoral student who has been working on research projects with Roth for over a year.

In 2005, Roth’s lab received a two-year subcontract worth $70,000 per year from the Air Force to work on plasma-related technology projects. He says that program managers with the Air Force knew he had a foreign student working with him before making the contract. Air Force officials did not return calls for comment on Tuesday.

In May of this year, after Roth asked the university’s Office of Research whether an Iranian graduate student could also work on the continuing subcontracted research project, he says that Robin Witherspoon, a recently hired grants and contracts specialist with the institution, told him that federal law would prohibit such a hire.

Soon after his inquiry, federal officials began their investigations of the professor’s research. Officials with the Departments of State and Commerce, which oversee different aspects of the implementation of the Arms Export Control Act, said they could not comment on Roth’s specific situation because their investigation is continuing.

The university, for its part, has not wavered in its support for Roth. “The university is cooperating fully with federal authorities,” Thomas Milligan, a spokesman for Tennessee, said Tuesday. “Both the science and the federal regulations are complex, but at this point we do not believe the university has violated the act. Nor do we believe that a university professor has violated the act, but because of the ongoing federal investigation, as well as our own internal review, we can’t comment further.”

Roth and others are especially concerned about the xenophobic implications of the situation, if the primary rationale for the investigation was the nationality of the Chinese student.

“Citizenship seems to be where the line was drawn,” said Roth. “This is a very different attitude than existed when I was a graduate student in the '50s and '60s.

“We in the U.S. do not have a lock on new and important ideas,” he added. “It really doesn’t make sense. A large percentage of foreign graduates stay in the U.S. and become U.S. citizens."

Roth said that his own student, Dai, had planned to do just that, along with his wife, until the current controversies surfaced. “Why would he choose to do that now?” asked the professor.

Gerald Epstein, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington nonprofit group that conducts research for the federal government, said Tuesday that the Arms Export Control Act requires in some instances that researchers secure governmental licenses for foreign national students working on certain projects, but that many in the academic community are concerned that this process violates many university anti-discrimination policies. He added that if the Air Force truly felt that a Chinese national should not have worked on the research project, its officials should not have subcontracted it to the University of Tennessee in the first place. Roth says that Air Force program specialists were always aware of Dai's involvement.

“The idea that we want to control technologies in a globalized economy doesn’t make much sense in the first place,” said Epstein. “We want to be damned sure that the world’s smartest people keep coming here to learn, don’t we? This is a question to be answered by policy makers.”

Epstein said, too, that some universities may choose to forgo taking research monies that would limit who could work on a project, based on their nationality. Officials at the Association of American Universities have argued that institutions of higher education should not pursue projects with such strings attached.

Roth plans to continue his summer vacation in the Maine woods, but he said that the situation has been highly stressful. Ironically, most of the information that may be of concern to federal officials involving his research is readily available on his university lab’s Web site. And his textbook is currently being translated into Chinese.


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