Navigating the Export Controls Landscape: A Guide for UK Research

Xavier Roeseler
July 25, 2024


Export Control regulations govern the export and transfer of certain goods and technologies for reasons of national security, foreign policy interests, and strategic trade considerations. For example, military equipment or emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI).

Failure to adhere to these rules can have severe consequences, including heavy fines. The principle investigator is responsible for adherence but the research office plays a critical role in supporting researchers to comply with Export Control regulations.

With a proactive and structured approach, you can embrace compliance. For example, as an institution you must put processes and policies in place to help you and your researchers:

  • Identify controlled activities where export controls apply
  • Obtain appropriate licenses
  • Maintain records of controlled exports

In this piece, we'll explore the importance of export controls for the UK research sector, highlight their significance for research activities and provide initial steps you can take to navigate compliance effectively.

Demystifying Export Controls

At their core, these are laws and policies that regulate the export or transfer of certain controlled items to specific destinations, end-users, or for particular purposes. We're talking military equipment, dual-use goods that have civilian and military applications, emerging technologies such as AI, software, and technical data.

This isn’t a new concept. However, recent geopolitical tensions have thrust export controls into sharper focus.

Infonetica has engaged with many research managers who emphasise the complexities and difficulties of effectively managing export control compliance within their institutions. Challenges arise from a lack of dedicated "Export Control Managers," inadequately trained personnel, or even an absence of clear policies for tracking and managing these obligations.

Why Export Controls Matter for Research

Export controls have significant implications for universities and research institutions. The regulations can cast a wide net and apply to a range of research activities. If any of the following apply to your research, you’ll likely have to apply for a licence from the Export Control Joint Unit (ECJU):

  1. Controlled items: If your research involves items or technologies specified on the UK Strategic Export Control Lists. This could include cutting-edge fields like AI or dual-use goods straddling civilian and military applications. Your items could also be covered by trade sanctions.
  2. Deemed exports: Even if you're conducting research within the UK's borders, sharing controlled technical data, software source code, or technology with foreign nationals could be considered a ‘deemed export’, subjecting your activities to export control scrutiny.
  3. Cross-border activities: Planning to ship or hand-carry controlled items, materials, or equipment across UK borders for use at overseas facilities or conferences? Export controls may apply.
  4. International collaborations: Research collaborations, consortia arrangements, or third-party transfers involving restricted items, data and foreign partners can trigger export control obligations.
  5. Concerns raised: Finally, if you have concerns, or you have been informed of concerns about the intended end-use or the end-user, export controls may come into play.

Ignoring these regulations can have severe consequences that reverberate far beyond your lab or institution. This includes heavy fines, criminal penalties, loss of research funding, reputational damage, and disruptions to critical research programs. However, Trusted Research specialists at the 2024 ARMA conference explained that the likelihood right now of severe consequences is low. The ECJU and HMRC are focussed on ensuring institutions comply rather than focusing on punitive measures. Although this will change with time.

Navigating Export Control Compliance

It’s critical that research managers and the research office support their researchers to comply because non-compliance affects the whole institution, even if the principle investigator is responsible.

For research managers and institutions looking to navigate the complexities of export control compliance, here are some initial steps to take:

  1. Read the guidance and review the UK's Consolidated Export Control Lists: Be up to date with the list and technology control guidance to understand which research areas and activities may be impacted. Read the government’s export controls guidance for academic research.
  2. Identify controlled activities: Conduct a thorough review of research projects, collaborations, and activities to identify potential export control touchpoints. Use resources like the UK Strategic Export Control Lists and online assessment tools to determine if controlled items or technologies are involved.
  3. Obtain necessary licenses: If controlled items or activities are identified, apply for the appropriate export licenses or authorisations from the ECJU. This may involve Open General Export Licenses (OGELs) for less restricted exports or Standard Individual Export Licenses (SIELs) for more sensitive items or destinations. In most cases the Research Office will apply for these.
  4. Implement compliance programs: Develop and implement robust export control compliance programs within your institution. Establish clear policies, procedures, and responsible staff members to oversee screening transactions, obtaining licenses, recordkeeping, and regular training for researchers and staff. Look at export control training resources, such as the resrouces offered by the ECJU.
  5. Foster awareness: Encourage a culture of export control compliance throughout your research community. Provide regular training, resources, and support to ensure researchers understand their obligations and the potential consequences of non-compliance.
  6. Maintain records: You must maintain accurate and auditable records of all controlled exports, transfers, and associated documentation. This includes export licenses, details of the transfers, required forms, and any correspondence with the ECJU. Support your research community to adopt proper data management plans and make it easy for them to keep records of activities.

While navigating export controls can seem daunting, taking proactive steps to understand and address these obligations is crucial for UK research institutions. Not only does it mitigate the risks of non-compliance, but it also facilitates international research collaborations while safeguarding national security interests.

Get in Touch

We’ve been working with research management experts to develop an Export Controls Product to help institutions:

  • Navigate export controls
  • Educate and guide their researchers
  • Identify activities that export controls apply to
  • Track licences
  • Maintain accurate records
  • Be audit ready

Contact us

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