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Who's Keeping the Chinese Away From NASA?

Who in the U.S. government decided that Chinese nationals with an interest in studying alien planets are a national-security threat?

That’s the question at the heart of an embarrassing episode that came to light last Friday when the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper reported that applications of several Chinese researchers for an upcoming conference at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, were rejected.

In China, the revelations spurred lengthy online debates about the history of U.S discrimination against Chinese. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ever eager to seize the human-rights high ground from the U.S. labeled the ban a “discriminative action,” and used the opportunity to expound on its belief “that academic or scientific activities should not be politicized.”

In the U.S. a disconcerting lack of clarity and accountability has accompanied the incident. It’s almost impossible -- in large part due to the partial government shutdown that has taken most of NASA with it -- to find the source and reasoning for this ban.

The Guardian story quoted incensed U.S. researchers who suggested that NASA was acting in a discriminatory manner and noted that the NASA official who rejected the applications cited federal measures, including legislation passed in March. That seems to refer to an amendment to an appropriations bill (some form of which has been included annually in legislation dating back to 2011), championed by Representative Frank Wolf of Virginia, the chairman of a House appropriations sub-committee with oversight of NASA. That legislation restricted “bilateral” contact between NASA and “China or any Chinese-owned company” and “the hosting of official Chinese visitors at facilities belonging to or utilized by NASA.” Other press accounts claimed that the rejection letters received by the Chinese nationals cited the similar language in a 2011 spending bill.

For those who disapprove of the ban -- including the Chinese -- Wolf is a convenient culprit. He’s among Congress’s most rabid critics of China, and he hasn’t been shy about connecting his crusades on behalf of Chinese human rights, and against the Communist Party, to the U.S.’s space program. For example, in a rambling Tuesday letter to Charles Bolden, NASA’s administrator, he pointedly thanked the space agency chief for his willingness to meet with Chinese rights activists in Wolf’s office earlier this year. No doubt, it was a worthy exercise, though unlikely one that helped Bolden plan NASA’s next Mars probe.

Still, in his Tuesday letter Wolf was adamant that no legislation passed by him would restrict students from attending NASA-sponsored conferences or other “multilateral” gatherings that include Chinese nationals. Rather, he noted the NASA official was probably thinking of action taken by Bolden, namely “a temporary restriction on Chinese nationals that you put in place earlier this year after serious security protocol flaws were brought to your attention by some in Congress, including me.”

Indeed, in late March, Bolden announced a moratorium on granting new access to NASA facilities to people from China and seven other nations. As Wolf wrote in his letter: “Any restriction against Chinese nationals on NASA centers is entirely an agency policy and not covered under the statutory restriction. Furthermore, it was my understanding that NASA’s temporary restrictions had been lifted after a review of security protocols for foreign nationals at all NASA centers.”

On Thursday, Bolden responded to Wolf’s accusations in an e-mail obtained by Science. In it, he placed blame for the rejected applications on “mid-level managers” who -- after a period of increased security scrutiny -- “acted without consulting NASA HQ.” Did they do so on the basis of legislation? A (potentially expired?) moratorium? Their own volition? According to Bolden, answers “will not be available until after the government is reopened.”

By then, Bolden no doubt hopes the incident will have been forgotten, along with the rejected Chinese researchers whom, he assures Wolf, will probably be welcome to re-apply to join the alien-planet conference. Of course that may or may not take place at the NASA Ames facility -- or at all -- if the government fails to re-open in time. The Chinese are likely having the last laugh on this one: The U.S. government seems to be chief among the alien worlds in need of study.

(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for Bloomberg’s World View blog and a contributor to the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter.)

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