NSF's Beijing Brouhaha

Brushing aside the last-minute objections of an influential member of congress, the National Science Foundation (NSF) on Friday gave the green light to a science policy meeting in China now under way that involves officials and scientists from both countries.

Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), chair of the House Science Committee, was supposed to deliver the keynote address at the 3-day Beijing conference, which was organized by Thomas Ratchford, a senior science official in the Bush Administration who now teaches at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. He has a $325,000 NSF grant to explore U.S.-Chinese roles in a "borderless, knowledge-based 21st century economy."

But Sensenbrenner pulled out last Wednesday, blasting China's "repeated efforts to obtain or misuse sensitive military technologies," and urged NSF to cancel the meeting. Ironically, he broke the news to NSF director Rita Colwell in a call that interrupted a meeting with reporters in which she and presidential science adviser Neal Lane heaped praise on Sensenbrenner and his Republican colleagues for their help in passing the just-signed 2000 budget for NSF and NASA.

Colwell spent the next day conferring with Lane and other scientists before deciding that the meeting, which featured Gerald Keusch, head of the Fogarty International Center at NIH, and Gerald Hane of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, should go on. The seminar "is not linked to [Sensenbrenner's] specific concerns" and upholds "the principle of free circulation of scientists," she said on Friday. Sensenbrenner was "disappointed" by NSF's decision, which he said "prompts further questions about the Administration's handling of S&T issues involving China."