Scientists boycotting NASA conference over China ban

The Guardian, LONDON

Sun, Oct 06, 2013 - Page 7

NASA is facing an extraordinary backlash from US researchers after it emerged that the space agency has banned Chinese scientists, including those working at US institutions, from a conference on grounds of national security.

NASA officials rejected applications from Chinese nationals who hoped to attend the meeting at the agency’s Ames Research Center in California next month, citing a law, passed in March, which prohibits anyone from China setting foot in a NASA building.

The law is part of a broad and aggressive move initiated by US Representative Frank Wolf, chairman of the US House of Representatives Appropriations Committee, which has jurisdiction over NASA. It aims to restrict the foreign nationals’ access to NASA facilities, ostensibly to counter espionage.

The ban has angered many US scientists, who say Chinese students and researchers in their labs are being discriminated against. A growing number of US scientists have decided to boycott the meeting in protest, with senior academics withdrawing individually, or pulling out their entire research groups.

The conference is being held for US and international teams who work on NASA’s Kepler space telescope program, which has been searching the cosmos for signs of planets beyond our solar system. The meeting is the most important event in the academic calendar for scientists who specialize in the field.

Conference co-organizer Alan Boss refused to discuss the issue, but said: “This is not science, it’s politics unfortunately.”

University of California, Berkeley, astronomy professor Geoff Marcy, who has been tipped to win a Nobel prize for his pioneering work on exoplanets, or planets outside the solar system, called the ban “completely shameful and unethical.”

In an e-mail sent to the conference organizers, Marcy said: “In good conscience, I cannot attend a meeting that discriminates in this way. The meeting is about planets located trillions of miles away, with no national security implications.”

“It is completely unethical for the United States of America to exclude certain countries from pure science research,” Marcy wrote. “It’s an ethical breach that is unacceptable. You have to draw the line.”

Yale University astronomy professor Debra Fischer said she became aware of the ban only when a Chinese post-doctoral student in her lab, Ji Wang, was rejected from the conference. When NASA confirmed that Ji was banned because of his nationality, Fischer decided to pull out of the meeting and her team followed suit.