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Export Controls Office Finds the Hidden Traps in Federal Contracts

Unproblematic contracts are all alike; every problematic contract is problematic in its own way

​ Faculty in the School of Medicine and faculty in the School of Engineering each had pending awards from DOD agencies come up over the last month. One group works on hyperbaric medicine and studies the effects of decompression on pigs. Their research is to be funded by Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) and has a specific military application, but can also be applied to broader medical questions.  Another group, to be funded by DARPA, is studying metamaterials and their application to satellite systems.

Each contract contains security provisions and publication approval requirements that run contrary to Duke’s open research policies and if accepted, would place extended burden (both cost and effort) on the research teams.

Terrence Rusch, from the Duke Office for Export Controls (OEC), worked with Office of Research Contracts and the Office of Research Support to identify the problems and assist the contract negotiators in their efforts to have the contract language removed and amended in our favor. They were successful in both cases and the research projects can now move forward unencumbered.

Efforts like these happen in the background and are rarely seen by researchers. Most research at Duke is considered fundamental, which makes it exempt from export controls. However, once a funding agency chooses to place restrictions on publication or sharing information, the project formally loses its status as fundamental research and becomes a target for extensive compliance protocols. Often it happens unnecessarily, as contracting officers at agencies such as DOD are used to working with private companies where they are unable to invoke the fundamental research exemption. But for academia, fundamental research status is a vital tool in complying with export controls regulations.

“Such issues are becoming more common as there are new funding restrictions and security requirements that are not properly understood throughout federal government yet,” said Daniel Vick, the director of the Duke Office of Export Controls.” This results in restrictions appearing on awards where they should not be. Funding agencies are rightfully concerned about security threats, but a misunderstanding of the threat and misapplication of security measures will hinder scientific research, and this is something we are trying to prevent. We work very hard alongside the pre-award offices to identify and remove unnecessary burdens in sponsored research awards, both at the proposal stage and during the award term negotiations, after the proposal is accepted.”

Researchers are typically unaware of these important OEC efforts. Spotting problematic contract language is subtle; negotiating contract changes, especially in the current foreign policy climate, is difficult; and the coordinated efforts and collaboration between OEC and ORS and ORC is no small or easy feat. “I’m proud of the work Terrence did and would like to highlight these efforts,” Vick said.

Rusch joined Duke in 2016, where he came with liberal arts education and extensive industry experience. Apart from export controls, he is busy raising his daughter and tending to his cat and dogs. When things return to normal, he is looking forward to meeting with his friends and playing trivia at a local brewery.