Chinese Grad Student Work Leads to Criminal Case

On April 15, 2008, the Department of Justice announced that Daniel Max Sherman, a physicist who formerly worked as the director of plasma research at Atmospheric Glow Technologies, Inc., a Knoxville, Tennessee based company. According the to plea agreement, between January 2004 and May 2006, Sherman and J. Reece Roth, a Professor Emeritus at the University of Tennessee, engaged in a conspiracy to transmit export controlled technical data related to a restricted U.S. Air Force contract to develop plasma actuators for munitions-type Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) or "drones", to a foreign national from the People's Republic of China. 

The Chinese national was a graduate research assistant at the University of Tennessee. The DOJ reported that the University of Tennessee was victimized by the conspirators and cooperated throughout the FBI-led investigation. 

Mr. Roth has not been charged in the case. The investigation of Mr. Roth has been watched closely by those in academics since May 2006 when it was reported that Customs agents copied his laptop as he returned from a trip to China and that search warrants were executed at his office and laboratory. University officials who monitor export control compliance believe that the Tennessee case may have arisen due to the involvement of a for-profit company. The International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) exempts fundamental research done by universities that is ordinarily published and shared broadly within the scientific community. However, when a private company is involved and the research is proprietary or restricted from publication or disclosure, no exemption applies.

report on the matter in the New York Sun contained these insights from university officials:

"If you're blurring the lines between the work you do at one place and the work you do at another, you can quickly get into trouble," Patrick Schlesinger of the University of California said. Doing only publishable research also allows universities to avoid segregating foreigners, a task that may be impractical in physical science programs where American citizen students are often a minority. "If we want to preserve that safe harbor, we also need to be very vigilant," Steven Eisner of Stanford University said. "This particular case in Tennessee will wake up the university community to export controls if they weren't aware of it already."