Science & Technology Issues Facing Congress, & More from CRS

Science and technology policy issues that may soon come before Congress were surveyed in a new report from the Congressional Research Service.

Overarching issues include the impact of recent reductions in federal spending for research and development.

“Concerns about reductions in federal R&D funding have been exacerbated by increases in the R&D investments of other nations (China, in particular); globalization of R&D and manufacturing activities; and trade deficits in advanced technology products, an area in which the United States previously ran trade surpluses. At the same time, some Members of Congress have expressed concerns about the level of federal funding in light of the current federal fiscal condition. In addition, R&D funding decisions may be affected by differing perspectives on the appropriate role of the federal government in advancing science and technology.”

See Science and Technology Issues in the 115th Congress, March 14, 2017.

Other new and updated reports from the Congressional Research Service include the following.

The American Health Care Act, March 14, 2017

Previewing a 2018 Farm Bill, March 15, 2017

EPA Policies Concerning Integrated Planning and Affordability of Water Infrastructure, updated March 14, 2017

National Park Service: FY2017 Appropriations and Ten-Year Trends, updated March 14, 2017

Qatar: Governance, Security, and U.S. Policy, updated March 15, 2017

Northern Ireland: Current Issues and Ongoing Challenges in the Peace Process, updated March 14, 2017

Navy LX(R) Amphibious Ship Program: Background and Issues for Congress, updated March 14, 2017

Under Pressure: Long Duration Undersea Research

“The Office of Naval Research is conducting groundbreaking research into the dangers of working for prolonged periods of time in extreme high and low pressure environments.”

Why? In part, it reflects “the increased operational focus being placed on undersea clandestine operations,” said Rear Adm. Mathias W. Winter in newly published answers to questions for the record from a February 2016 hearing.

“The missions include deep dives to work on the ocean floor, clandestine transits in cold, dark waters, and long durations in the confines of the submarine. The Undersea Medicine Program comprises the science and technology efforts to overcome human shortfalls in operating in this extreme environment,” he told the House Armed Services Committee.

See DoD FY2017 Science and Technology Programs: Defense Innovation to Create the Future Military Force, House Armed Services Committee hearing, February 24, 2016.

Patents Granted to Two Formerly Secret Inventions

Two patent applications that had been subject to “secrecy orders” under the Invention Secrecy Act for years or decades were finally granted patents and publicly disclosed in 2016.

“Only two patents have been granted so far on cases in which the secrecy order was rescinded in FY16,” the US Patent and Trademark Office said this week in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.  They were among the 20 inventions whose secrecy orders were rescinded over the past year.

One of the patents concerns “a controllable barrier layer against electromagnetic radiation, to be used, inter alia, as a radome for a radar antenna for instance.” The inventor, Anders Grop of Sweden, filed the patent application in 2007 and it was granted on April 5, 2016 (patent number 9,306,290).

The other formerly secret invention that finally received a patent this year described “multi-charge munitions, incorporating hole-boring charge assemblies.” Detonation of the munitions is “suitable for defeating a concrete target.” That invention was originally filed in 1990 by Kevin Mark Powell and Edward Evans of the United Kingdom and was granted on October 25, 2016 (patent number 9,476,682).

The inventors could not immediately be contacted for comment. But judging from appearances, the decision to control the disclosure of these two inventions for a period of time and then to grant them a patent was consistent with the terms of the Invention Secrecy Act, and it had no obvious adverse impacts.

Invention Secrecy Increased in 2016

There were 5,680 invention secrecy orders in effect at the end of Fiscal Year 2016. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office reported that 121 new secrecy orders were issued in 2016, but also that 20 existing orders were rescinded, for a net increase of 101 over the year before. The latest figures were released under the Freedom of Information Act.

The government may impose a “secrecy order” on a patent application under the Invention Secrecy Act of 1951 if it believes that disclosure of the underlying invention would be “detrimental to national security.” Under those circumstances, a patent is withheld and the inventor is prohibited from revealing the invention unless and until the secrecy order is withdrawn.

The majority of secrecy orders apply to inventions that were developed with government sponsorship, in national or military laboratories or by government-funded contractors. So the ensuing secrecy amounts to the government silencing itself.

In a subset of cases, however, secrecy orders are imposed on private inventors who developed their idea without government support. There were 49 such orders in FY 2016. These orders, known as “John Doe” secrecy orders, seem like a form of prior restraint on individual speech that would be arguably inconsistent with the First Amendment.

But there have been few constitutional challenges to the Invention Secrecy Act to date, and none that has dislodged or modified the Act.

In 2014, inventors Budimir Damnjanovic and Desanka Damnjanovic filed a lawsuit seeking compensation for a secrecy order that the U.S. Air Force imposed on them. They also argued that the Invention Secrecy Act itself was unconstitutional.

“Because the Patent Secrecy Act prohibits Plaintiffs from speaking of their Invention to third parties, including potential customers, it violates the First Amendment of the Constitution,” their May 14, 2014 complaint stated.

Moreover, “the Patent Secrecy Act has resulted in Plaintiffs being deprived of property without due process and just compensation in violation of the Fifth Amendment.”

The court dismissed the constitutional claim because by that time the secrecy orders had been lifted and therefore, the court determined, the inventors did not have standing to make their constitutional case.

“Plaintiffs’ First Amendment argument fails because the harms they claim they suffered are past injuries. Further, the purported prohibition on speech Plaintiffs allegedly endured is not an ongoing issue, given that the secrecy orders have been lifted,” according to a September 22, 2015 court order. (Damnjanovic v. US Air Force, E.D. of Michigan, S. Div., 14-11920).

Ultimately, however, the parties reached a settlement regarding the compensation issues, and in December 2015 the government agreed to pay the inventors a lump sum of $63,000 to dismiss the case.

For related background, see “Congratulations, Your Genius Patent is Now a Military Secret” by Joshua Brustein, Bloomberg, June 8, 2016.

The Department of Defense published a proposed rule in the Federal Register today on “Withholding of Unclassified Technical Data and Technology From Public Disclosure.”

The rule “is meant to control the transfer of technical data and technology contributing to the military potential of any country or countries, groups, or individuals that could prove detrimental to U.S, national security or critical interests.”

“For the purposes of this regulation, public disclosure of technical data and technology is the same as providing uncontrolled foreign access. This rule instructs DoD employees, contractors, and grantees to ensure unclassified technical data and technology that discloses technology or information with a military or space application may not be exported without authorization and should be controlled and disseminated consistent with U.S. export control laws and regulations.”

Autonomous Military Technology at a “Tipping Point”

Autonomous military technologies that are capable of independently selecting a course of action to achieve a goal are maturing rapidly, the Defense Science Board said in a newly published study.

“Autonomy, fueled by advances in artificial intelligence, has attained a ‘tipping point’ in value,” the DSB study said.

“Autonomy will deliver substantial operational value–in multiple dimensions–across an increasingly broad spectrum of DoD missions, but the DoD must move more rapidly to realize this value. Allies and adversaries alike also have access to increasingly rapid technological advances occurring globally,” the study said.

The Board recommended that the Department of Defense undertake a series of pilot projects “intended to demonstrate the range of benefits of autonomy for the warfighter.”

The Board did not consider catastrophic failures modes associated with autonomous technologies in any depth.

But the study did say that “an autonomous system must be designed so that humans (and/or machines) can straightforwardly determine whether, once it has been deployed, it is operating reliably and within its envelope of competence — and, if not, that appropriate action can be taken.”

See Summer Study on Autonomy, Defense Science Board, June 2016.

Patents Awarded to Formerly Secret Inventions

Last year, 95 secrecy orders barring disclosure of inventions under the Invention Secrecy Act of 1951 were imposed on new patent applications while 36 prior secrecy orders were rescinded. Three of the newly releasable inventions have recently received patents, decades after the inventors filed their applications.

The three new patents were identified by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

The formerly secret inventions that received patents this year are:

Patent Number 9057604: Point-ahead laser pointer-tracker systems with wavefront correction in both transmit and receive directions. Filed in April 1989, the patent application was finally granted in June 2015.

Patent Number 9115993: Fused PM fiber single-polarization resonator. It was filed in August 1990 and granted in August 2015.

Patent Number 9181140: Solid propellant bonding agents and methods for their use. It was filed in December 1993 and granted in November 2015.

The factors that led the U.S. government to impose secrecy orders on these particular inventions more than two decades ago (and to release them this year) are not self-evident. But neither do they seem to indicate an obvious abuse of authority.

There were a total of 5,579 invention secrecy orders in effect at the end of fiscal year 2015, the highest number of such secrecy orders since FY 1993.

Secret Inventions on the Rise

There were 5,579 invention secrecy orders in effect at the end of fiscal year 2015. This was an increase from 5,520 the year before and is the highest number of such secrecy orders in more than a decade.

Under the Invention Secrecy Act of 1951, secrecy orders may be imposed on patent applications when a government agency finds that granting the patent and publishing it would be “detrimental” to national security.

Most of the current invention secrecy orders were renewals of orders granted in past years. According to statistics released under the Freedom of Information Act by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, there were 95 new secrecy orders imposed last year, while 36 prior orders were rescinded. More information on the newly rescinded orders is forthcoming.

Of the 95 new orders, 15 were so-called “John Doe” secrecy orders, meaning that they were imposed on private inventors in cases where the government had no property claim on the invention. The prohibition on disclosure in such cases therefore raises potential First Amendment issues.

Classified Military R&D in China

China’s military research and development program is organized around 16 “national megaprojects” that are intended to advance and transform that country’s capabilities in core technology areas including electronics, aerospace, clean energy, and so on. Three of the 16 national projects are classified and have not been officially acknowledged.

But in a recently published US Army War College volume, China specialists Richard A. Bitzinger and Michael Raska identified “three prime candidates” for the classified Chinese programs: 1) a laser fusion program; 2) a navigational satellite system; and 3) a hypersonic vehicle technology project.

The Shenguang (Divine Light) laser is an experiment in inertial confinement fusion. The project reportedly aims to achieve ignition and plasma burning by 2020. “Shenguang has two strategic implications: it may accelerate China’s next-generation thermonuclear weapons development, and advance China’s directed-energy laser weapons programs,” wrote Bitzinger and Raska, who are based at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

The Beidou 2 satellite system is a network of hardened navigational satellites, which potentially “eliminates China’s dependency on the U.S. GPS and Russia’s GLONASS satellite navigation systems that could be deactivated in select areas in times of conflict,” they wrote.

Finally, “there are signs that China is developing conceptual and experimental hypersonic flight vehicle technologies such as hypersonic cruise vehicles (HCV) capable of maneuvering at Mach 5.”

See Capacity for Innovation: Technological Drivers of China’s Future Military Modernization by Ricard A. Bitzinger and Michael Raska, in The Chinese People’s Liberation Army in 2025 (Roy Kamphausen and David Lai, eds.), published July 2015 by the Strategic Studies Institute and the US Army War College Press.

“Although China’s military innovation lagged behind that of Western powers, China’s ‘latecomer advantage’ has enabled it to skip various phases of development,” the volume editors wrote. “As a latecomer, the PLA has been able to identify and absorb key foreign civil and military technologies.”

A recently updated report from the Congressional Research Service discusses China’s Economic Rise: History, Trends, Challenges, and Implications for the United States, September 11, 2015.

Invention Secrecy Orders Reach a 20 Year High

On October 27, 1977, Dr. Gerald F. Ross filed a patent application for a new invention he had devised to defeat the jamming of electromagnetic transmissions at specified frequencies. But it was not until June 17, 2014 — nearly 37 years later — that his patent was finally granted (Anti-jam apparatus for baseband radar systems, patent number 8,754,801).

In the interim, Dr. Ross’s patent application had been subject to a secrecy order under the Invention Secrecy Act of 1951, which both prevented issuance of the patent and prohibited its public disclosure.

At the end of Fiscal Year 2014 (on September 30), there were 5,520 such invention secrecy orders in effect, according to statistics released by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office under the Freedom of Information Act.

That is the highest number of invention secrecy orders in effect since 1994. It is unclear whether this reflects growing innovation in sensitive technology areas, or a more restrictive approach to disclosure by government agencies.

In fact, the overwhelming majority of current secrecy orders were issued in prior years, but there were 97 new secrecy orders that were imposed in FY 2014. Meanwhile, there were 22 existing orders that were rescinded, including the order concerning Dr. Ross’s invention.

Under the Invention Secrecy Act, secrecy orders may be imposed whenever, in the judgment of an executive branch agency, the disclosure of a patent application would be “detrimental to the national security.” This is a lower, less demanding standard than that for national security classification (which applies to information that could “cause damage to national security”) and not all secret inventions are classified. Some may be unclassified but export controlled, or otherwise restricted.

Other newly disclosed inventions formerly subject to a secrecy order that was rescinded by the government during the past year include these (according to data obtained from the Patent and Trademark Office):

Method of producing warheads containing explosives, patent number 8,689,669

Method of treating a net made from ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene, patent number 8,808,602

Ballistic modification and solventless double propellant, and method thereof, patent number 8,828,161

Ballistic modifier formulation for double base propellant, patent number 8,864,923

Synthetic aperture radar smearing, patent number 8,836,569

Special Operations as a Technology Driver

The continuing prominence of special operations as an instrument of U.S. force projection is creating requirements for “revolutionary, game changing” new technologies and fostering the development of solutions to those requirements.

Adm. William H. McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command until last month, told the House Armed Services Committee in two newly published hearing volumes that a range of new technologies are under development by SOCOM, including laser weapons, new emergency medicine techniques, color night vision, and more.

“USSOCOM is currently pursuing directed energy systems as a non-kinetic, stand-off anti-materiel solution. We have a requirement to surgically disable or disrupt a variety of fixed facility infrastructure and systems, with required capabilities ranging from breaching and access to disablement of critical equipment. The Man Portable High Energy Laser is one of several technologies under consideration for this critical mission,” Adm. McRaven wrote in response to questions for the record from a March 2014 hearing.

Emergency medical response is another concern. “Uncontrolled external hemorrhage remains the leading cause of death on the battlefield. Despite recent advances in hemorrhage control technologies, controlling the bleeding in large wounds (‘sharkbite’) remains difficult and a SOCOM Commander top priority. A ‘Sharkbite’ project developed a novel wound stasis dressing to treat SOF non-compressible hemorrhagic injuries. The ‘SharkBite Trauma Kit’ includes three revolutionary tools that are now pending FDA approval before transition to USSOCOM’s PEO–SOF Warrior’s Tactical Combat Casualty Care Program of Record and SOF medics.”

“Some of our most difficult advanced technology requirements include personal protection, signature management, first pass lethality, and color night vision,” Adm. McRaven wrote in response to questions from another hearing in February.

“USSOCOM… is leading the development of a series of technologies necessary to construct a Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) in order to increase Special Operations Forces survivability…. The development of powered exoskeletons, advanced armor, and lightweight power generation and distribution systems have wide-ranging potential uses…. It is envisioned that novel ballistic materials, advanced power storage systems, and exoskeleton advancements will be made available to other DOD and Federal agencies prior to the fielding of the TALOS prototype.”

“Our adversary’s capabilities continue to evolve and improve. To maintain our edge on the battlefield SOF needs comprehensive signature management in all environments to avoid detection. We are evaluating novel technologies to provide SOF aircrews and their platforms with first pass lethality by rapidly acquiring ballistic wind data for vastly increased accuracy of unguided weapon systems.”

“Finally, maintaining our tactical advantage at night will require revolutionary, game changing capabilities like color night vision. The goal of our color night vision effort is to provide the SOF operator the ability to see true color on a moonless night with just starlight–a tremendous tactical advantage,” Adm. McRaven wrote.

With or without such advantages, however, “I would be concerned about thinking that the special operations community is the panacea for all our problems,” Adm. McRaven testified in February. “We are not.”