Scientific freedom must be upheld

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 October, 2013, 1:09am

A Sino-US conflict in which astronomers and physicists uninterested in politics become the only remaining lines of communication between Beijing and Washington seems an unlikely scenario for an eminent scientist to put forward. But given the genius of some politicians and bureaucrats to challenge assumptions about their common sense, maybe not.

American researchers have worked themselves into a lather - to the point of boycotting a Nasa conference in California next month they would not normally dream of missing - over a politically inspired ban on Chinese scientists, including those working at US institutions, attending the conference.

The Nasa ban on individual scientists, under the misguided application of a law - ostensibly to counter espionage and intellectual-property theft - that targets bilateral activities and official Chinese visitors rather than scientific collaborators has produced a backlash from US researchers. Some Chinese scientists have also expressed outrage, but said they were hardly surprised given the anti-Chinese sentiments in the US.

It took Geoffrey Marcy, an astronomy professor at the University if California, Berkeley, to raise the conflict scenario, saying that the law could damage relationships built up between US and Chinese researchers that could be valuable for communication. Ironically, efforts by an embarrassed Nasa to resolve the row were hampered by communications problems caused by a US government shutdown.

The conference brings together US and international teams who work on Nasa's Kepler space telescope programme to search for planets beyond our solar system. The ban, based on nationality, reverses decades of non-discrimination going back to cold-war conferences of American and Russian physicists. It can be easily circumvented by shifting the conference to another venue. But it would do more for international understanding and scientific freedom if the ban were dropped, and scientists could pursue knowledge of our universe undistracted by earthly politics and gratuitous discrimination.