Export control is here to stay but how can we minimize its negative impact on our day-to-day work?

The export control-process is currently making us lose the best PhD candidates and prevented from starting and finishing the projects on time. How could we fix it?

- “Export control is here to stay” but with better planning we can try to reduce, if not fully remove, its drastically negative effects on our day-to-day work.

“EXPORT CONTROL IS HERE TO STAY” these are six words that I would not have imagined saying until a few months back. I doubt half my colleagues would believe these words have come out of my mouth even now! But, after many many therapy sessions (my psychologist probably knows more about export control than most people working in academia in Norway), talking (ranting) with colleagues, and doing whatever I imagined is possible to face the issue, I’m giving up and raising the white flag!

Don’t misjudge me, as an Iranian who knows well the regime that is running the country, I am fully in support of preventing the export of any technology that can be misused by such governments. Nevertheless, I wholeheartedly believe that the way export control is implemented in Norway is impractical both for us as employers and for future employees. This is not just because of the discriminative approach against people from certain countries but it also has a drastically impairing effect on research in Norway.

The assumption that any person who is a citizen of a certain list of countries is a potential spy and works for the country they are a citizen of is absurd. There are many people in Iran, Russia, China, and other countries who would like to leave the country exactly because of the ruling regime. Right now, we are not only preventing these group of people from pursuing international research careers, but we are pushing innocent and competent people to work for those regimes against their own will (after all, people need to make money to live!). I have worked in different European and American universities and currently I am not aware of any that has such rigid approach in treating people just because of their nationality! I could write about this for a long time, but as mentioned above, I gave up on fixing the policy, so let’s at least make it work. This is especially important since in her general meeting in Gjøvik the rector mentioned that we will soon have a top level policy shared across the university.

“Export control is here to stay” but how is it affecting those of us working in academia in Norway? It’s obvious that in its current format the process takes a long time and is unclear. Add to that, the process being implemented behind closed doors, and the result is that we are not only losing the best candidates but also prevented from starting and finishing projects on time. I, for example, have been trying to employ a PhD candidate on a project funded by the Norwegian research council for more than a year and I think in the best scenario I could have someone employed in the next six to nine months!

Right now, optimistically, there is a gap of around nine to twelve months from the time we interview a candidate to the time we get the green light to offer a position to any candidate who is not a citizen of a NATO country. Add the time the candidate would need to get here, and we basically are talking about 1.5 to two years delay in the start of any project. Not only is it not realistic for a candidate to wait this long to see if the position is offered to them, but it is unethical for us to ask a candidate to wait in limbo for this long. Naturally, we are losing the best candidates. As an example, in the time I spent preparing this article I became aware of applicants for two different positions, who after waiting for more than a year for the process to complete, have started in PhD positions in Denmark and Sweden!

Furthermore, our current employees who sign a new contract on a different position (such as after completing a PhD) or master students, who have had access to everything during their studies, need to go through the same export control process as someone who is just joining the university! Surely these people could go through an expedited process preventing them from leaving the university and moving somewhere else. As an example, last year we had a new master student graduate who we were interested in employing, but he had to go back to his country because his visa ran out while he was waiting for his export control license to be issued! Keeping in mind all the costs the taxpayers have already paid for recruiting and/or educating someone, it does not make any sense to lose staff because the process is too long and the employee or the recent graduate much more easily can find a position somewhere else. It logically makes no sense for someone to have access to devices and equipment one day and lose the access the next day, just because they are being employed on a different position.

“Export control is here to stay” but how could we as academics try to make life easier for us and guarantee that it would not affect our work and productivity?

First, the university can speed up the internal process. NTNU is short on HR staff, and especially security officers. For example, right now at the faculty of Information technology and Electrical Engineering there is only one security officer who takes care of all the export control applications, which I assume is tens, if not hundreds, in any given time. Processing export control licenses is not even his only task. This has resulted in the internal process of an export control license taking a very long time. By having more HR staff and security officers NTNU could at least remove this bottleneck, and speed up the internal process.

Second, Norwegian universities should lobby the government to speed up the application processing time on their end. Right now, this process has no clear time limit, is open ended, and based on the current experience takes more than six to nine months! The same process in other countries is time limited (two months, in the case of France) and the candidates are informed about the process and expected time it takes to complete the process, making expectations more realistic and manageable.

These two steps would obviously not entirely solve the issues we are facing but it will at least make everything clearer not only for us, but also for the candidates at the time of application. Hopefully this will encourage them to wait for the offer given the defined, limited time it would take. By expediting this process, we will also be able to reduce the workload for different sectors which are already stretched thin with the current implementation of the export control regulations.

“Export control is here to stay” but with better planning we can try to reduce, if not fully remove, its drastically negative effects on our day-to-day work. All we want to do is our jobs – producing good research, cooperating with the best universities internationally, training good PhD candidates, and encouraging them to stay at our otherwise excellent university.