The Confusion Wrought by ‘The China Thing’

September 5, 2012 | By Jerry Ashworth | Post a Comment

It sounds like a good, patriotic thing to do at first, restricting bilateral activity with China. But, oh, the questions it has raised. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration now dubs it “The China Thing.”

Let me explain. New NASA guidance implements a restriction in Pub. L. 112-55 that instructs contracting officers to include clauses in grants, contracts and solicitations informing recipients that they may be ineligible for fiscal year 2011 and FY 2012 funding if their on-going or proposed work involves bilateral activity with China or Chinese-owned companies. For existing grants and contracts, this means that NASA may be unable to incrementally fund a research team that includes bilateral Chinese involvement. For proposals under evaluation, NASA may find that a proposal is ineligible for award if it involves bilateral involvement with China.

A NASA official recently told attendees at a Federal Demonstration Partnership meeting that “The China Thing” has created some consternation among researchers with NASA awards. For example, they have asked whether the restrictions would apply to graduate students or team members who are Chinese citizens, but are not working at Chinese institutions. The guidance states that while the statute does not restrict individual involvement based on citizenship or nationality, individuals are subject to the restriction if they are affiliated with institutions of the People’s Republic of China or Chinese-owned companies incorporated under the laws of China.

The NASA official noted that two critical terms in the guidance is are “bilateral” and “multilateral.” The language of the law specifies that the restriction is on “bilateral” work, implying that multilateral work funded by NASA may involve principal investigators at Chinese institutions. Work that involves PIs from other countries in addition to China and the U.S, and work done under the auspices of a multilateral organization are generally permitted. For example, research papers with authors only from the U.S. and China are considered bilateral activities, while papers with authors from other countries in addition to the U.S. and China are generally considered to be multilateral activities.

“Go out and get yourself a French man,” the NASA official quipped as a solution to avoid a bilateral arrangement. She may have been half-joking, but there’s a grain of truth there.

I’m not sure how many NASA research grants this law will affect, but it does raise valid concerns for American PIs working with Chinese organizations. To address some of these questions, NASA has posted a FAQ website at Even if your grant is not affected, you may want to check out this site. I’m really interested to see if the NASA official has a follow-up on “The China Thing” at the next FDP meeting in January 2013.

Let us know if you’ve been affected by the bilateral clause in Pub. L. 112-55.


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