Commerce Under Secretary Visits MIT, Talks Shop

The Under Secretary of Commerce for Industry and Security, Mario Mancuso, was on campus last Tuesday, Nov. 6, visiting with upper level administrators. During his visit, Mancuso met with The Tech and talked about his job and how it impacts the MIT community.

The Tech: Tell me a bit about yourself and what your job entails.

Mario Mancuso: First, I have the great privilege to serve as the Under Secretary of Commerce for Industry and Security. … We have two primary missions. One is to ensure that we have an efficient, an effective dual-use export control system that advances our national security and foreign policy purposes. [Dual-use] is a formal term for technologies which are civilian technologies that might have military applications. The government has a regulatory system which regulates the export of those goods.

Our second mission, which is equally important, is to promote continued U.S. leadership in strategic technologies. …

TT: Why are you at MIT today?

MM: MIT is one of the world’s leading research institutions. … Given our mission with respect to technology, and given MIT’s role in innovation and the quality of the student body, it’s very important for us to engage [with MIT]. It’s important for us to understand what makes the U.S. special in terms of technology and what the ingredients are to ensuring technology leadership. …

The circumstances on the ground, in the world, are changing. Competitive geography is changing. There are new technology competitors that are rising in the world, and that’s a good thing for people in general. But, at the same time, if our mission is to promote U.S. leadership in strategic technologies, we need to be mindful of what’s going on outside Washington, D.C. And there’s no better place to get it than talking to people who are actively involved. …

TT: How often do you talk to universities?

MM: I’m in Boston for two days, and I’m speaking to some other universities. And we will continue to do that on a regular basis. I also travel internationally, [as well as] domestically. If you think about our mission, it really touches three distinct constituencies: the academic community, obviously; private industry that gets caught up in our regulations; [and] the national security community.

[Those groups are] not competitors, they’re different parts of the puzzle. And so we conduct outreach with members of each of those communities, and in fact, while I’m here, I will speak to members of each of those communities.

TT: What types of regulations do universities generally have to worry about?

MM: One of the big issues for universities — it’s actually a big issue for the United States [and] plays itself out in university settings to some extent — is this whole idea of the role of foreign researchers in our innovation ecosystem.

That’s a complex area, because foreign nationals play a critically important role to the United States. From a research perspective, we have foreign nationals in our labs that are doing terrific work, and we’re glad they’re here. We have foreign nationals that get educated in the United States and work for U.S. companies, and they’re doing terrific work. We’re glad they’re here.

Moreover, in addition to the economic benefits, there’s a real, I would say a soft, national security benefit, but a national security benefit nonetheless. [Foreign nationals] are often the most effective ambassadors we have to those countries and those communities. That’s a real plus.

At the same time, in some limited instances, there are some foreign nationals who are a threat to U.S. security in terms of technology transfer. That’s certainly not the bulk, but it’s a real risk that we have to mitigate and that we have to address. The larger issue is, given the role foreign talent plays in our innovation ecosystem, how do we … address the discrete risk while at the same time capturing the benefits of globalization.

TT: And how would you do that?

MM: We have rules that balance these interests, that try to do that. They do a reasonably good job, but they need to be updated. …

About a year ago, the Secretary of Commerce empaneled a federal advisory committee [to study the issue and come back with recommendations]. This committee has met for a year; in fact, they held a meeting at MIT a couple of months ago to solicit comments on their work. … That report is due before the end of the year to the Secretary of Commerce. The idea is that the secretary will, with us, look at the report [and] make a decision to see if we might make this policy which is currently existing any better. …

TT: How does this affect students?

MM: Well, certainly it affects those students that may be impacted by the regulations. It also affects researchers and people who care about technology leadership. I think this is a really exciting time. … This will impact the kind of economy America has going forward.