NASA may be reconsidering controversial background investigations that prompted a high-profile lawsuit by 27 scientists, engineers and other employees at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Nature has learned. A letter from the American Astronomical Society, released to Nature, attempts to inform the space agency’s deliberations.
The US Supreme Court ruled 20 January, 2011 that the government had the right to investigate the backgrounds of those doing unclassified research at the lab, which designs and constructs many of NASA’s spacecraft including the Mars rovers.
At issue in the case was NASA’s use of a form called Standard Form 85, which allowed investigators to probe any detail of the employees’ private life. The AAS letter to NASA says that these checks go further than National Science Foundation or the US Department of Energy requires for unclassified workers at its facilities. Robert Nelson, a planetary scientist at JPL who was lead plaintiff in the case, says he feels the AAS letter is an eloquent summary of the plaintiffs’ position. “We never opposed all background investigation, we opposed the particular checks NASA wanted to do,” he says.
The addressee of the letter, NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver (pictured), did not respond to a request for comment. AAS Executive Officer Kevin Marvel says AAS sent the letter because it understood there had been some movement towards determining NASA policy, and wanted to have an input in case a policy was under development.