Science became the ping-pong ball in a back-and-forth over foreign policy at a US House of Representatives hearing on Capitol Hill today. The wider issue being debated by lawmakers and officials in the Obama administration was whether the United States should engage closely with communist China in the hope of changing it, or follow a policy of isolation and detachment.
On the side of engagement was the Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) John Holdren (pictured); Frank Wolf (Republican, Virginia) argued against. As chairman of the subcommittee overseeing the funding of NASA and OSTP, Wolf has inserted a ban on expenditure on bilateral science talks with China. Holdren has continued to hold such talks in the belief that the ban is unconstitutional. Experts say that the restriction could jeopardize much productive scientific collaboration between the countries.
“In general, the US benefits from science and technology cooperation with other countries,” protested Holdren as he opened his testimony. He cited as a benefit an outcome of a Dialogue on Innovation Policy in which he says the White House convinced China to drop policies that were discriminating against American companies that were selling made-in-America products in China. “We have more to do … that’s why I’m keen to continue,” he said.
NASA administrator Charles Bolden also spoke in favour of dialogue with China, although he made clear that, unlike the OSTP, NASA is respecting the current ban. One consequence is that NASA is at present unable to retrieve satellite data from telemetry stations in China, and NASA employees and contractors have had to cancel trips there, Bolden said. He cited orbital debris mitigation and human spaceflight as two areas where the United States could benefit from working with China.
But it seemed unlikely that those benefits would be enough to convince the hawks in Congress that engagement is the right approach. In an impassioned testimony that opened the hearing, and that hearing chairman Dana Rohrabacher (Republican, California) said he entirely agreed with, Wolf argued that a policy of detachment was required to keep the United States on the right side of history. He cited numerous alleged human rights abuses by the Chinese, its policy in Tibet, and its support for the government in Darfur. “There will come a day when the Chinese government will fall because repressive totalitarian regimes always do,” said Wolf. “Books will be written about who helped sustain this government in its final days. Will US companies be included? Will US government officials be included?”
The hearing also included extensive debate over whether Congress has the legal right to limit the OSTP’s involvement in foreign policy. That discussion, regarding the balance of power between the executive branch run by the President and the legislative branch run by Congress, may ultimately have to be settled by the courts.