Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Spending Bill Prohibits U.S.-China Collaborations

A little-noticed clause in the 2011 spending bill signed into law last week cuts off funding for a host of scientific exchanges between the United States and China.

Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA), a fierce opponent of the Chinese government and chair of a key appropriations panel, inserted two sentences into the legislation that prohibits any joint scientific activity between the two nations that involves NASA or is coordinated by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). White House officials say that they are still reviewing the language. On the surface, it appears to apply only to those two entities, and the bill extends only for the rest of the 2011 fiscal year, which ends on 30 September. But that still cuts a wide swath. And Wolf makes it clear that he would like to permanently shut down all collaborations between the two governments.

"We don't want to give them the opportunity to take advantage of our technology, and we have nothing to gain from dealing with them," says Wolf. "And frankly, it boils down to a moral issue. ... Would you have a bilateral program with Stalin?"

The language in the spending bill says that no government funds can be used by NASA or OSTP "to develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement or execute a bilateral policy, program, order, or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company." It also prevents any NASA facility from hosting "official Chinese visitors."

Wolf says that he singled out NASA because China's space program, although nominally independent, "is run by the People's Liberation Army." But the inclusion of OSTP is meant to cast a much bigger net, he adds. "It addresses everything, the entire bilateral relationship on science and technology with respect to NASA and everything that involves OSTP," he says. "It's the whole ball of wax."

In January the two countries signed an extension of a 1979 agreement on science and technology cooperation that has spawned dozens of projects sponsored by several U.S. agencies and their Chinese counterparts. A fact sheet accompanying the 19 January event at the White House between presidential science advisor John Holdren and Chinese science minister Wan Gang cites cooperative research covering "fisheries, earth and atmospheric sciences, basic research in physics and chemistry, energy, agriculture, civil industrial technology, geology, health, and disaster relief." In November 2006, the National Science Foundation (NSF) opened an office in Beijing to foster such research collaborations, for example, and in November 2009 the two countries announced what may be the largest single joint activity: a $150-million Clean Energy Research Center with matching contributions from the U.S. Department of Energy and China's Ministry of Science and Technology and its National Energy Administration.

Wolf has long criticized China's suppression of religious and minority leaders and political dissidents, as well as its policies toward Tibet. He's also used his position as chairman of the House spending panel on Commerce, Justice, and Science-which funds NASA, NSF, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as well as the Justice and Commerce departments-to berate federal agencies on their vulnerability to cyberterrorism. Earlier this year, for example, NSF's Inspector General described a recent 2010 attack on NSF computers that, ironically, affected grant applications to its Office of Cyber Infrastructure.

"China is spying against us, and every U.S. government agency has been hit by cyberattacks," says Wolf in explaining why he opposes any collaboration with the Chinese government. "They are stealing technology from every major U.S. company. They have taken technology from NASA, and they have hit the NSF computers. ... You name the company, and the Chinese are trying to get its secrets."

Although Wolf says that ban is confined to activities funded by the Chinese government or government-owned companies, he says that "maybe next year we'll include NGOs [non-governmental organizations]." He adds that anyone who thinks the Chinese NGOs can operate independently of the government "is really naïve."