As reported over the weekend, some scientists are angry with NASA and/or Congress for preventing Chinese nationals from attending next month’s Second Kepler Science Conference on the grounds of NASA’s Ames Research Center. That issue has attracted the attention of the member of Congress who put into legislation limitations on NASA cooperation with China, provisions he now says NASA is misinterpreting.
In a seven-page letter released by his office Tuesday, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) wrote to NASA administrator Charles Bolden about the news, first reported by The Guardian, that Chinese scientists are not being allowed to attend the conference. In the letter, he argues the provision in the fiscal year 2013 continuing resolution that funded NASA, and similar provisions dating back two years, don’t prohibit NASA from hosting Chinese scientists at scientific meetings like the Kepler conference.
The law, he said, “primarily restricts bilateral, not multilateral, meetings and activities with the Communist Chinese government or Chinese-owned companies. It places no restrictions on activities involving individual Chinese nationals unless those nationals are acting as official representatives of the Chinese government.” Any interpretation of the law to block all Chinese visitors to NASA centers, as a NASA official stated in a message included in The Guardian article, “mischaracterizes the law and is inaccurate.”
The relevant section of the FY2013 CR includes these provisions:
Sec. 535. (a) None of the funds made available by this Act may be used for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) or the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement, or execute a bilateral policy, program, order, or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company unless such activities are specifically authorized by a law enacted after the date of enactment of this Act.
(b) The limitation in subsection (a) shall also apply to any funds used to effectuate the hosting of official Chinese visitors at facilities belonging to or utilized by NASA.
While Wolf writes that the restriction “primarily restricts bilateral, not multilateral, meetings,” the language of subsection (b) above appears to cover all “official Chinese visitors” at NASA facilities, regardless of the nature of the visit. What constitutes an “official Chinese visitor” isn’t defined: presumably an individual from the Chinese space agency or other government organization would qualify, while, say, a Chinese student would likely not.
Wolf believes that the conference instead ran up against a blanket moratorium on visits to NASA centers by Chinese (and some other) nationals put into place by NASA in March after security concerns. Wolf added that he understood the moratorium had already been lifted by NASA.
If true, that’s not the message that conference organizers got. In a message Tuesday, members of the conference’s scientific organizing committee (SOC) said they heard about the moratorium only in late September, when six Chinese participants had their registrations denied—timing that would presumably have been after the moratorium had been lifted, in Wolf’s view. “Had we been aware of this possibility at the onset of planning KSC2, alternate venues to NASA/Ames would have been pursued,” said a statement Tuesday by members of the SOC.
While the SOC said any prohibition, by law or NASA policy, is “deplorable,” they admitted there’s little they can do so close to the conference (scheduled to start November 4), and with NASA personnel involved with the conference furloughed. “With no registration fee, and complete lack of ability to communicate with colleagues at NASA/Ames, seeking options for an off-site venue in the Bay Area is challenging,” the SOC writes, adding they’re looking into unspecified ways to allow all interested people to participate in person or remotely. (The conference already had plans to webcast sessions, with the ability of those watching the webcast to ask questions.)
In his letter to Bolden, Rep. Wolf did not single out agency leadership for criticism. He spent more than a page criticizing NASA Ames specifically, calling it “a rat’s nest of inappropriate and possibly illegal activities that appear to have occurred with the concurrence of the center’s leadership.” He also called out scientists who said they planned to boycott the meeting, asking if they “will draw a similar line when it comes to cooperation with Chinese government funded agencies and programs due to their systemic human rights abuses.” And, of course, there was criticism of China itself, both for its human rights record and “prolific Chinese cyperattacks and espionage.”
The situation has been criticized by Chinese officials. “We think that these academic meetings should not be politicized,” a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry told the South China Morning Post. However, among the general public in China, the news has gotten a mixed reaction, according to Bloomberg News. While some are angry that Chinese participants were rejected from attending the conference, others said they understood the rationale for doing so. “I believe it’s our bad record in regard to intellectual property that makes NASA overcautious,” one person said in comments to a Chinese article about the situation. “So, in light of China’s poor record on intellectual property protection, the act of NASA is reasonable.”
Update 6:35 pm: NASA administrator Charles Bolden has provided a brief response to Wolf’s letter, according to a two-paragraph email from Bolden to Wolf provided by Wolf’s office to selected media. In it, Bolden blamed the barring of Chinese participants for the Kepler conference on “mid-level managers at Ames” acting on their interpretation of NASA rules and without consulting with NASA Headquarters. Bolden said that any individuals barred from the conference could have their applications reconsidered once normal operations resume at Ames and attend, provided they meet “the clearance requirements in place for foreign citizens.” It’s worth noting, though, that the registration deadline for foreign participants, regardless of nation, was September 20, so it may be too late even if the shutdown ends in time for the early November conference to take place.