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    NASA's Strict Rules for Talking to and Working with China

    Written by

    Amy Shira Teitel


    I’ve mentioned before that NASA has a policy preventing any collaboration with China. All of the reader responses I got were along the lines of “That’s just stupid! We should be doing science without politics!” It would be great to take politics out of space, but that’s not likely to happen. NASA has made its stance on China very clear, and this year’s guidelines for researchers hoping to gain funding from NASA for explorations programs includes an additional FAQ sheet that explains the dos and don’ts of working with China.

    Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES) is an annual NASA Research Announcement (NRA) with a description of calls for proposals. Topics range from earth science, heliophysics, planetary science, to astrophysics, and any proposal is fair game as long as it supports basic and applied research and technology in one of these disciplines. Proposals selected from the list receive funding – in some cases as much as several millions of dollars – in the form of grants, cooperative agreements, contracts, as well as inter- or intra-agency transfers.

    “Proposals must not include bilateral participation, collaboration, or coordination with China or any Chinese-owned company or entity."

    In this year’s ROSES document, NASA made said, in so many words, that “Proposals must not include bilateral participation, collaboration, or coordination with China or any Chinese-owned company or entity, whether funded or performed under a no-exchange-of-funds arrangement.”

    In an additional document, the agency gives lengthy answers to some common questions about what that means. So, for your consideration, here’s a run down of what NASA has to say about its funded researchers working with China.

    If a proposal involves bilateral work with China or a Chinese owned company, that is to say work between the US and China only, NASA may very well deem it ineligible for funding. This doesn’t just affect new proposals. If an existing project currently funded by NASA involves any collaboration with China, the agency may decide it’s unable to continue funding that research team.

    This ineligibility because of bilateral work with China extends to individuals on a research team. If a research project involves anyone affiliated with China or a Chinese entity, NASA will not provide increased funding for that team. If, however, affiliations between that team and China or the Chinese entity in question have ceased and are guaranteed not to resume the team may be eligible for continued or increased funding.

    But this doesn’t extend to Chinese citizens working on all-American projects. A Chinese citizen is free to work on a NASA project and the team will have the same access to funding as any other. Restrictions only come if the individual is affiliated with institutions based in China or Chinese-owned companies that are incorporated under Chinese laws. In this case, the individual and the research team will be affected by the same restrictions.

    But, interestingly, collaboration with China is fine as long as there’s at least one more nation involved. The NASA rule doesn’t stop NASA employees, contractors, or grant recipients from interacting with their Chinese counterparts at multilateral, widely-attended conferences. Like the upcoming 2012 International Astronomical Union General Assembly, for example, which is being held in Beijing.

    Work done under a multilateral or multinational organization is likewise allowed. Websites fall under this banner, so posting and sharing content on an internationally accessible website is fair game. By the same token, NASA won’t stop the exchange of freely available information between China and the US. Things that are accessible through public channels like public data, records, and publications are fine. The one condition is that no NASA-sponsored researcher can enter into any agreement with China or a Chinese organization to access this information. Even an informal verbal agreement will cause problems with NASA.

    And while open communication and sharing information is fine, generating shared content isn’t allowed. Papers and reports where the authors are from only the USA and China are considered bilateral activities, so NASA funds can’t be applied to these programs. But like conferences, if a third nation is involved writing a paper, it becomes multilateral and fair game.

    Conversation between American and Chinese scientists is allowed, providing the scientific discussions aren’t about a bilateral collaboration between NASA and Chinese entities.

    And there you have it. All the rules make any possible cooperation between NASA and China sound sort of like Fight Club. But with science.


    Image: On his first day of visiting China, Administrator Griffin presents a picture montage with a flown American and Chinese flags to President and CEO, China Academy of Space Technology, Dr. Yuan Jiajun. Credit: NASA.