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Chinese astronomer caught in
crossfire of political star wars

Yale astronomer Ji Wang will be going to a NASA conference next week after all. But thanks to a snafu in which the space agency banned and then unbanned the Chinese researcher, his Yale mentor will not attend the gathering of planet hunters in California.

The trouble began in September. Wang, a postdoctoral associate in Professor Debra Fischer's exoplanets research group, got an e-mail from NASA saying he could not attend the conference that begins November 4. Hosted at a NASA research center, the "major science conference" will focus on new data from the Kepler space mission, aimed at finding exoplanets, or planets that orbit other stars.

The agency told Wang that a new federal law bars it from using federal money "to effectuate the hosting of official Chinese visitors at facilities belonging to or utilized by NASA.”

When Fischer and other members of the Yale delegation heard of Wang's exclusion, they decided to boycott the conference. So did astronomers from elsewhere in the US.

The Guardian wrote about the "extraordinary backlash," pinning the ban on "a broad and aggressive move" by US Representative Frank Wolf to keep restrict foreign nationals' access to NASA facilities. But Wolf bit back with a 3,000-word letter accusing NASA of mischaracterizing the law.

"Few in Congress have done more to advocate for the Chinese people than me," the Virginia Republican wrote to NASA chief Charles Bolden. "As you know, the congressional provision . . .  primarily restricts bilateral, not multilateral, 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."

So NASA reinvited Wang—who earlier this year was dubbed "a rising star in the search for exoplanets"— and the other disinvited Chinese nationals. Several other Yale astronomers will go with Wang. But Fischer, whom Time magazine calls "one of the world’s pre-eminent planet hunters," will not: she made plans to attend a different conference.

“For me," Fischer tells the New Haven Register, "this has been a realization that science in this country has become too highly politicized.”

Filed under astronomy, NASA, Ji Wang, Debra Fischer
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