Does NASA want to find ways to cooperate more with China in space, despite current legislative restrictions? Or is NASA using those restrictions to blunt the free flow of information among scientists? Both, depending on what you read.
On Monday, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported that NASA administrator Charles Bolden met with the president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences last week when Bolden was in China for the International Astronautical Congress. The two “exchanged frank opinions on pragmatic co-operation in relevant fields in the future,” the paper said, quoting a statement by the academy. (That statement does not appear on the academy’s Chinese-language website.) Bolden reportedly said he was “highly serious” about greater cooperation with China, particularly in the area of earth observation.
One obstacle to that cooperation, though, is law that has been in place for over two years prohibiting NASA (along with the Office of Science and Technology Policy) from using any funds for bilateral programs with China or to host Chinese nationals at NASA facilities. That language was added to the full-year continuing resolution that funded NASA for FY 2011. There was similar language in the FY 2012 appropriations bill that funded NASA, preventing the use of funds for cooperation with China and hosting Chinese nationals at NASA facilities, although that bill included a clause allowing exceptions when NASA certifies, and notifies Congress at least 14 days in advance, that there is no risk of technology transfer. That language was included in the continuing resolution for FY 2013, with the addition of a provision that any exception must demonstrate that any such interactions will not involve Chinese individuals known “to have direct involvement with violations of human rights,” and requiring at least least 30 days advance notice to Congress.
Needless to say, those restrictions make any kind of cooperation and interaction difficult, if not impossible. So it shouldn’t be surprising that this restriction has become an issue in next month’s planned Kepler Science Conference at NASA Ames. The UK newspaper The Guardian reported Saturday that scientists are upset that Chinese nationals, including those working at non-NASA institutions in the US, are being prevented from attending the conference. Several American scientists have decided to withdraw from the conference, the article reports, with noted exoplanet astronomer Geoff Marcy calling the restriction “completely shameful and unethical.”
While the article’s lede claims that “Nasa [sic] is facing an extraordinary backlash from US researchers,” the article is missing some details and nuance. The fault for any prohibition of Chinese participation in the conference lies not with NASA, but with the Congress that passed legislation with those provisions. Conference organizers could presumably get around this by moving the conference off the NASA Ames campus, but the additional expense in doing so would likely make that infeasible. Not noted in the article is the fact that, after sequestration went into effect in the spring, the Kepler project put plans for the conference on hold, reinstating them in the summer. The conference is also emphasizing remote participation because of restrictions on travel funding, allowing people to at least view the presentations and ask questions via the web. Presumably Chinese participants prohibited from attending the conference in person could still attend virtually—as many NASA and contractor scientists will have to do for budgetary reasons.
It’s also not the first time NASA has gotten entangled with this law. In March, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), who pushed for the inclusion of the provisions in 2011, called out NASA for not excluding any Chinese participants from a meeting of the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites scheduled to take place at NASA Langley. NASA had not submitted any certification to Congress that the meeting did not pose a national security risk at least 14 days before the meeting, so Wolf said NASA should cancel any Chinese participation. No Chinese officials attended that meeting, according to its official minutes.
Moreover, this restriction should have prevented any Chinese participation in the first Kepler Science Conference, which took place at NASA Ames in late 2011, after the law first went into effect. There was, at least publicly, no similar outcry from scientists about a ban on any Chinese participation. (The Guardian article also claims that there’s “a broader law passed in July which prohibits Nasa funds from being used to participate or collaborate with China in any way”; I could find no such provision in recent law.)
One British astronomer quoted in the article said he hopes “everyone boycotts” the conference until NASA moves the conference somewhere else. In the end, though, the debate may become a moot point: with non-essential NASA operations suspended during the ongoing federal government shutdown, the conference itself, scheduled to begin November 4, could be in jeopardy if the shutdown doesn’t end in the next few weeks.
(Update 10/6 2:30 pm: some astronomers are making an admitted “Hail Mary” attempt to find an alternate venue for the conference, thus sidestepping the restrictions on attendance caused by hosting it on the NASA Ames campus. “I realize that ~400 people is a very large number of attendees, and that we are within a month from when the meeting is supposed to happen, and that we do not have funds to offer, but I believe that science must go on and that makes it worth asking,” writes astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz. But, as noted above, the current shutdown, which has halted meeting preparations, may be a bigger threat to the conference than any prohibition on attendance.)