Monday, September 20, 2010

Mixing Academia and Military Secrets: The Case of J. Reece Roth

The plasma physicist J. Reece Roth wrote a book on industrial plasma engineering that I have found very useful in my recent research. So when I was asked to recommend a reviewer for a paper on plasma physics, I went on the Internet to find Roth’s email address. To my amazement, the first thing that came up was a story about how Roth had been indicted, tried, and convicted for violating export-law restrictions on technical data he had developed as part of an Air Force research contract. In July of 2009, Roth was sentenced to four years in prison for giving restricted information to Chinese and Iranian nationals and taking a laptop to China with restricted information on it. At this time, the 73-year-old Roth may not actually be in jail yet pending an appeal, but this sad end to a notable career is a cautionary tale for anyone who conducts research in an academic setting with certain types of military funding.

After graduating from MIT in 1959, Roth obtained a Ph. D. from Cornell and joined NASA, where he worked in plasma-fusion technology until 1978. He then joined the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and developed an atmospheric-pressure plasma technology which he published and patented. Around 2000, he co-founded a company called Atmospheric Glow Technologies (AGT) to develop inventions based on his discovery, and for a few years the firm did quite well, licensing several products which were made by other firms.

Along the way, Dr. Roth had made several trips to China in order to present his research work, and was named an honorary professor at two universities there. Like many other researchers in technical fields, he hired Chinese graduate students from time to time and communicated with them regarding the technical details of the research they were doing. So far, none of these activities would be of legal concern. But all that changed when AGT won a Phase I Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) contract with the U. S. Air Force to do research on plasma actuators for drone aircraft.

There is nothing wrong about professors inventing useful things, or patenting their inventions through their institution’s intellectual property office, or founding companies to exploit the patents. This type of activity is becoming almost routine in academic science and technology, and is vigorously encouraged by many universities. Most people (not all) even think there is nothing wrong with professors who do military research. But if they do, they have to follow the rules.

Certain types of military research contracts have export-restriction clauses in them, meaning that any technical data developed as a result of the contract is subject to export-law restrictions. This is only reasonable behavior on the part of the military, which hopes to gain a technical advantage over their international competition. If the usual free and open access to information that is customary in universities were allowed for focused and applied military research results, the Air Force would be spending its money for the benefit of all military forces in the world, which is not the point. So the SBIR contract that Roth’s company obtained with the Air Force explicitly restricted technical results in this way and made them subject to the Arms Control Export Act (ACEA), which requires obtaining a license before disclosing the information to foreign nationals or exporting it to foreign countries.

Unfortunately for Roth, he thought he knew better than the University of Tennessee’s export coordinator Robin Witherspoon. Instead of founding his company at a physically separate location from his university lab and staffing it with company-hired staff, which would have made it easier to obey the export-restriction laws, he continued to use his university lab and his graduate students for both university and AGT research activities, paying for the AGT work through a subcontract with the university. This is a touchy way of doing things ethically under the best of conditions, and when you add export restrictions to the mix, you get a potentially explosive situation.

In May of 2006, when export coordinator Witherspoon discovered that in blatant contradiction to the terms of the SBIR contract, Roth had hired non-U. S. nationals to work on the project, she told him he had to remove them at once and find U. S. students instead. She also told him not to take any restricted information on a trip he was about to make to China.

Roth apparently believed that until he demonstrated a working prototype, his work was still “fundamental research” and not subject to export restriction laws. Acting on this erroneous supposition, he continued to communicate research results to his Chinese and Iranian graduate students and took to China a laptop containing proposals and research reports on the SBIR project. The University of Tennessee, fearing it would be charged with violations if something wasn’t done fast, informed the FBI and the State Department of Roth’s actions. When he returned from China, he found federal officials waiting for him. They confiscated his laptop and began an investigation that culminated in a federal indictment, a trial, and conviction on thirteen counts of violating the Arms Control Export Act.

Along with his many academic honors, Roth now has the dubious distinction of being the first professor convicted under the ACEA laws. His sad story should be a warning to anyone who wants to pursue the combination of activities that Roth did. Setting up a separate lab with U. S.-only workers would have made more work for Roth and perhaps less profit. But it would have kept him out of trouble with the law.

Sources: There is an abundance of news material on Roth’s trial and the associated events. Among the reports I drew on were articles at the following websites:,2933,415982,00.html?sPage=fnc/us/crime

No comments:

Post a Comment