As SETI scientists, we inhabit a very different world from that in which our neighbors reside. We tend to view our planet from space, as a fragile blue dot floating in a black void. Our world is unified, devoid of political barriers, a spacecraft we all share, one which, together, we must all preserve. Our neighbors live their lives on flat maps, demarked by national boundaries, with individual political subdivisions set apart from one another by distinctive colors. And herein lies the disconnect.
It is our nature to communicate, to share information, to help one another in the pursuit of our research, and the pursuit of our lives. Our community is broad, diverse, and rewarding. We share our planet with friends; unfortunately, the rest of the world perceives a planet full of enemies. No matter how hard we try to convert our neighbors over to our viewpoint, we still have to live within the realities of their world. One of those realities is that governments create barriers to international cooperation, barriers which often restrict our research community's efforts.
The law of the land in the US includes a lengthy provision known as ITAR, for International Traffic in Arms Regulations. Formally consisting of 22 CFR Chapter I Subchapter M Parts 120-130 as amended through 72 FR 31452, ITAR is a litany of legalese now totaling 244 pages. Its stated purpose is to prevent the proliferation of weapons systems. Its sub-purpose is to keep attorneys gainfully employed. Its direct consequence is to stifle international cooperation in many arenas, including the design, construction, and use of radio telescopes.
The intent of ITAR was to preclude the export from the US of weapons systems. As a pacifist, I can hardly argue with this lofty goal. Unfortunately, it has been extended to restrict the distribution beyond US borders of anything that can conceivably be used as part of a weapons system. This broad definition clearly applies to electronics hardware, software, and designs (that is, just about everything that goes into our SETI stations). Further complicating our job as scientists and educators is the fact that ITAR restrictions apply to information, not just material goods. So, I cannot train The SETI League's international membership base in ITAR-restricted technologies, or allow our members to work in the University lab where some of our instruments might be under construction or testing! In other words, ITAR would have us all check citizenship papers before allowing the world's radio astronomers to collaborate in our SETI endeavors. Clearly, these are policies in direct conflict with a scientist's worldview.
One work-around is to employ only technologies which are already generally available worldwide (and to carefully document this fact). Such an approach would preclude design innovation, restricting us from using the latest and greatest in components, circuits, software, or architecture. A powerful example (pun fully intended) is solar electric generation. Under ITAR, we might be precluded from employing on space-based instruments the latest in triple-junction solar cells, the ones that achieve efficiencies on the order of 28%. Instead, we may be forced to use commonly available commercial-grade cells, the kind that struggle to make 10% on a sunny day. All in the interest of world peace, I suppose.
If you're a SETIzen of the world, and want to buy ITAR-restricted components from the US, there are hoops through which you can jump, and forms you can file with the Department of Commerce. This assumes you are a government agency, or giant aerospace corporation, and have your team of lawyers and administrators on staff to wade through months of red tape and reams of paperwork. Most of us in the SETI community would be daunted by the requirements, and just give up.
An interesting irony is that ITAR restrictions may fly in the face of international law. The United States is, after all, signatory to the UN Space Treaty which, among other things, bans all weapons systems in space. That same US government routinely sanctions launch of various communications and remote sensing satellites. Now, if under ITAR our facilities, which are often used to receive signals from those birds, are to be considered weapons systems, does this not imply an admitted violation of the Space Treaty? Seems to me, the bureaucrats can't have it both ways.
Yes, our radio telescopes are weapons. We use them to fight ignorance. Unfortunately, sometimes ignorance fights back.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in editorials are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The SETI League, Inc., its Trustees, officers, Advisory Board, members, donors, or commercial sponsors.
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this page last updated 5 April 2008
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