House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology (Democrats)

Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA)

Legislator Blasts NASA's Explanation for Excluding Chinese Students From Meeting

Jeff tries to explain how government works to readers of Science.

The chair of a congressional spending panel that funds NASA has ramped up his attack on NASA’s Ames Research Center, calling it “a rat’s nest of inappropriate and possibly illegal activities.” The latest salvo from Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA) criticizes the center’s rationale for excluding six Chinese students from an upcoming scientific meeting, a step that has prompted some scientists to call for a boycott of the 4 to 8 November meeting at Ames, located in Mountain View, California.

The rejections were first reported over the weekend by The Guardian, a British newspaper. The article cites an e-mail from Ames’s Mark Messersmith to Yale University astrophysicist Debra Fischer explaining why one of her postdocs, Ji Wang, would not be allowed to attend the Kepler II conference. Wang was planning to present a poster based on data collected by the now-moribund NASA spacecraft.

“Unfortunately, federal legislation … passed last March forbids us from hosting any citizens of the People’s Republic of China,” Messersmith wrote to Fischer in an exchange obtained by ScienceInsider. In an earlier e-mail to Wang rejecting his registration, Messersmith says “I apologize in advance for the inconvenience.”

Writing today to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Wolf asks Bolden to “quickly correct the record” on why the students were excluded. Wolf says that the legislation to which Messersmith refers—language Wolf inserted into a 2011 spending bill—“primarily restricts bilateral … 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.”

“As such,” Wolf tells Bolden, “the email from NASA Ames mischaracterizes the law and is inaccurate. … NASA headquarters needs to send updated guidance to both the conference attendees and to the press to correct this misconception.”

The application process for Kepler II isn’t the only thing that is sticking in Wolf’s craw. His seven-page letter to Bolden devotes considerable space to Wolf’s ongoing concern that NASA and other federal agencies aren’t doing enough to protect military and economic secrets from foreign countries bent on stealing them. And topping Wolf’s list of threats is the Chinese government.

“There is good reason Congress is concerned about providing the Communist Chinese government with additional opportunities to work with the U.S. on space given their continued cyberattacks, espionage campaigns and development of space weapons to use against the U.S.,” Wolf tells Bolden. “[T]he misrepresentation of NASA policy quoted in the Guardian article is the latest in a series of questionable actions taken by the Ames center leadership. … I believe the center has become a rat’s nest of inappropriate and possibly illegal activities that appear to have occurred with the concurrence of the center’s leadership.”    

Officials at Ames and at NASA headquarters were not available to comment because of the current government-wide shutdown.

Meanwhile, conference organizers are struggling to cope with NASA’s decision, which they see as a reaction to the language crafted by Wolf. In a letter to all registrants, the organizers say they “strongly object” to the ban and “are pursuing other options that will allow participation by all interested scientists either in person or remotely. We are also considering ways that attendees can express their concerns about the impact of this legislation.”

The ban isn’t the first obstacle that organizers have faced. The Kepler meeting was one of the few large conferences that NASA didn’t cancel as a result of budget cuts stemming from this year’s sequester.

Posted in People & Events, Policy, Scientific Community, Space