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Did you hear about the academic who went to prison for ignoring export controls? Academic freedom was no defence.

The experience of Emeritus Professor John Roth from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, USA is a cautionary tale for all academic researchers about the limits of academic freedom in a world troubled by threats of nuclear proliferation, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

Professor Roth was sentenced to 4 years prison for not observing restrictions under the Arms Control Export Act 1976 (US) after emailing and carrying documents containing restricted military technical data overseas without a permit. At the age of 76, Roth surrendered himself to authorities and served his sentence following unsuccessful attempts to appeal his conviction. Throughout, Roth considered ‘this interpretation of the export control act and concern about homeland security as a deadly threat to free scholarly inquiry.’ Prosecutors claimed he was “wilfully” ignoring his legal obligations and compromising national security by “exporting” technical data to foreign nationals.

DTC obligations and penalties apply to Australian academics

Since April 2016, Australian academics and researchers have been subject to a defence trade control regime with restrictions and penalties similar to those applied in the USA.

The Defence Trade Controls Act 2012 (Cth) regulates the export of tangible (equipment or components) or intangible (electronic transfer or sharing of technical data or specifications) goods with strategic defence or military applications. In circumstances where the restrictions apply, researchers must seek permission from the Australian Government before they can act.

Regulated items are listed on the Defence and Strategic Goods List (DSGL).

The items included on the DSGL cover a diverse range and types of technical equipment, componentry and software. Many of the items are included because they have a “dual use” – meaning that they may have been developed for a benign purpose but can also be applied to military uses.

How can you protect yourself?

To ensure that no-one at the University ends up like Professor Roth, the University provides DTC support to all research staff. The Office of Research Ethics Compliance and Integrity can assist you to

  • Determine research activity which may be captured under the DTC regime
  • Advise on the circumstances when a DTC permit is needed
  • Request a permit from the Defence Export Controls
  • Ensure that appropriate records are kept for DTC audit purposes.

It is important that you protect yourself against any breach of the DTC Act. Penalties of up to 10 years in prison and/or $525k apply to individuals.

In the case of Professor Roth, the University of Tennessee was completely unaware of his actions and was not prosecuted. Under such circumstances, the burden of the non-compliance is carried entirely by the academic responsible.

There is plenty of uncertainty for researchers in this area of regulation. But ignorance or disagreement about where the regulatory line should be drawn are no defence. Better to be aware, check the list, seek advice, get a permit and then focus back on your academic endeavours.

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