APS News

International News

A Physicist at the U.S. Department of State

By James A. Harrington

Throughout my professional career as a physicist working in industry and academia, I was always curious about the role scientists play in shaping public policy. It often seemed to me that for the most part scientists were marginalized and that physicists played only a small role in policy decisions. I wondered to what extent scientists were involved in foreign policy decisions and if a scientist working at the Department of State could make a difference. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to experience firsthand the interaction between science and foreign policy as a Jefferson Science Fellow at the Department of State. I felt that working as a physicist at State would enable me to become involved with at least a few of the many issues that are important to the physics community, such as non-proliferation, climate control, and the control of US technology.

In 1999, the Secretary of State asked the National Research Council for suggestions on how it could better deal with foreign policy issues involving science, technology, and health. The report issued by the NRC, entitled The Pervasive Role of Science, Technology, and Health in Foreign Policy: Imperatives for the Department of State, stated the pressing need for more scientists and engineers within the Department of State. To address this need, George Atkinson, Science Advisor to the Secretary of State, initiated the Jefferson Science Fellowship (JSF) program in 2004 to bring tenured faculty members from US academic institutions to work at State for one year. I worked as a JS Fellow from August, 2005 through August, 2006. That year there were 5 JSFs with backgrounds in physics, chemistry, material science, and environmental engineering. The only requirements for a JSF, in addition to being a US citizen, are that the institution must sign a memorandum of understanding with the Department of State agreeing to pay the salary for the fellow while on leave. Living expenses and a small travel grant are provided by the MacArthur Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation. The JSF program is a wonderful opportunity for senior level faculty to work as science advisors within a wide variety of State’s bureaus and offices. More general information on the JSF program may be found at http://www7.nationalacademies.org/jefferson/.

When the Fellows arrive at State, we interview staff members from across a broad range of policy areas. During my year, some fellows were attached to the African and Korean bureaus while others found opportunities within the Office of Information and Research, where they largely studied emerging technologies. I spent my year helping to advise the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation on export control of high technology goods. Specifically, I worked as a technical advisor in the Office of Conventional Arms and Threat Reduction (CATR) engaged in international negotiations that establish export control regulations related to cutting-edge dual-use goods and technologies. Dual-use goods are those that have both military and non-military applications. The controls are established by the 40 countries making up the Wassenaar Arrangement (WA) which meets in Vienna, Austria three times each year (see www.wassenaar.org for more details on the WA). During my year I have been exposed to controls for many of the goods and associated technologies covered in the WA including advanced materials, materials processing, electronics, computers, telecommunications, sensors and lasers, navigation and avionics, marine, and propulsion. Clearly it is not possible to have the background depth to work effectively in all of these categories, so I concentrated on the new controls proposed for detectors, lasers, and superconductors.

While the Department of State is the lead WA negotiator for the US, the determination of whether an item should be controlled or not is a joint effort between State and the Department of Defense and the Department of Commerce. Defense is normally quite conservative when it comes to releasing control of items that may be used by the non-WA countries for military purposes. Commerce, however, has to be concerned with security as well as keeping US industry competitive abroad. An excellent example of the dichotomy between Defense and Commerce is the control of low-light level detectors that may be used in night vision equipment. Defense wishes to control these sensitive infrared detectors and associated cameras while Commerce does not want to restrict the sale of low-light level cameras used for scientific purposes. One of my duties has been to help structure export controls that will decontrol non-military cameras yet prevent unlicensed sale of the new breed of highly sensitive detectors.

I was asked to chair the international technical working group on lasers. Lasers have been controlled for years in terms of the type of laser, but a new laser proposal would virtually rewrite the existing controls in terms of performance parameters rather than a specific laser type. My general background in lasers helped me work with the US and international delegations to refine the controls on lasers. The final proposal from our technical working group was presented to the Experts Group of the WA last September and it was approved. During the final negotiations leading up to the approval process at the WA, I learned that the new laser controls were not only based on science but also strongly influenced by policy and economic considerations. For example, one of the most difficult parts of the new laser proposal was the control of the rapidly emerging fiber laser technology. The final control on the output power of single-mode (SM) fiber lasers was determined by the military’s need to control powers well below 100 W yet still have the fiber lasers meet the commercial, non-military applications which require much more power.

During my tenure at State I was fortunate to work with so many scientists, engineers, and policy personnel from the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce as well as those from industry. I learned the difficulty in arriving at controls which do not overly hinder commercial applications but at the same time protect our military from the proliferation and sale of high technology outside of the 40 WA countries. One of the advantages of the JSF program is the possibility to continue the relationship with State after the fellowship year is over. I am continuing my work on export control as chair of the international working group on low-light level sensors and cameras. Working with State has enabled me to see first hand the importance of science in the development of a sound foreign policy. Clearly there is an important role for a scientist at State, yet I have learned that even though the science may be straightforward the path to achieving the final export controls is often filled with diplomatic potholes. But this just makes this job all the more interesting.

James A. Harrington is Professor of Material Science and Engineering at Rutgers University. He is an optical physicist whose research interests are in the area of specialty fiber optics including infrared fibers and photonic bandgap waveguides.

©1995 - 2016, AMERICAN PHYSICAL SOCIETY
APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff