UCLA lunar researchers were planning on collaborating with Chinese scientists this summer to better understand the moon’s temperature, but a recent congressional act might stand in the way.
The Department of Defense and Full-Year Continuing Appropriation Act of 2011, signed into law by President Barack Obama last month, includes a clause that prohibits the use of funds allocated to NASA or the Office of Science and Technology Policy from being used to contract, collaborate or coordinate bilaterally with China or any Chinese-owned company.
David Paige, UCLA professor of planetary science, said the clause directly prohibits NASA from working with the Chinese, but does not ban collaboration between University of California personnel and China. It also prohibits the use of funds for hosting official Chinese visitors at facilities owned by NASA.
The clause was written in response to alleged espionage and cyber security attacks launched by the Chinese against American agencies. Its author is Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA’s budget.
At a hearing on the implications of China’s military and civil space programs last week, Wolf said China’s global aims are directly at odds with U.S. interests. He also expressed concern because the space program is headed by the People’s Liberation Army, a militarized arm of the Communist Party in China.
“I have been very concerned by this administration’s apparent eagerness to work with China on its space program,” Wolf said to the hearing committee, according to a statement on his website.
“The U.S. has no business cooperating with the PLA to help develop its space program.”
As most of the funding for lunar research at UCLA comes from NASA, the clause could make collaboration between the UC and China difficult, if not impossible, Paige said.
Matt Siegler, a graduate student in planetary astronomy, looks for ice on the moon and regularly works with dirt from Mars as part of his research at the UCLA Department of Earth and Space Sciences. He and Paige conduct research for the Diviner Lunar Radiometer, one of seven instruments aboard a NASA spacecraft orbiting the moon.
The research team was planning to invite Chinese colleagues to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena this summer, Siegler said. This collaborative research would analyze data from Chinese and American lunar orbiters to better understand temperature on the moon.
“China has interesting data, and we have the resources to analyze that data,” Paige said. “This is an important country to collaborate with.”
The plan is now on hold, Paige said, but he believes the thought process behind the clause is outdated and suggests that China should be regarded as an enemy. Paige called this a “very Cold War way of thinking.”
But given the ambiguity surrounding the clause, he said scientists might be able to find loopholes.
Paige contacted the UC Office of the President for a legal review of the clause. A subsequent UCOP statement said it remains to be seen how NASA will apply the clause and whether it will affect pending proposals from researchers.
“The language would not necessarily prohibit NASA from funding research projects by U.S. investigators that include collaborations with Chinese colleagues,” according to the statement.
The ban imposed by the clause is set to expire in September, along with the rest of the spending bill.