In the following open letter, I am representing myself, not NASA or any other institution (although I did confer with non-NASA-employed members of the KepSciCon organizing committee before taking this action, and have their support).
I am writing with a plea to help save science from politics: the Kepler Science Conference is seeking an alternate last-minute venue, and needs your help.
During the first week of November this year, ~400 astrophysicists from all over the globe were intending to gather to discuss new insights into the universe gleaned from NASA’s Kepler Mission. Kepler, a telescope designed to find Earth-size planets orbiting in the habitable zones of other stars, has been one of the most successful missions in NASA’s history– not only discovering thousands of planets over the past four years, but telling us that our Galaxy may be teeming with planets similar to our own Earth.
Today, the current political landscape is rending the scientific community apart, at a time when knowing that our Earth is but one planet amongst many should be bringing us together.
Here’s the story:
The meeting is slated to be held at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA– Ames was an advantageous venue, as sequestration prevented the meeting from being held anywhere where there would be associated cost.
Unfortunately, earlier this year (after significant planning for the meeting had already taken place), further restrictions were implemented on foreign nationals visiting NASA centers. These barriers are an expansion of those led by Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA), which barred collaboration between NASA-funded US scientists and Chinese scientists back in 2011. Under the new restrictions, foreign nationals from certain countries are summarily banned from visiting NASA centers.
Although the Kepler conference organizers fought this restriction, we were informed a few days ago that young, talented astrophysicists from foreign countries would be barred from attending the meeting. As this meeting is arguably one of the most important opportunities to share and discuss new findings about these newly-discovered alien worlds, this restriction both damages scientific discourse within the community as a whole and directly damages the careers of those who are banned from participating. As a result, astronomers who originally planned to attend the conference are now planning to boycott in protest of these xenophobic policies.
To make matters worse, the current government shutdown now prevents all NASA employees from doing any work related to their employment– meaning that the NASA scientists and staff who played key roles in organizing the meeting cannot take any further steps associated with it until the shutdown ends. If the shutdown continues indefinitely, NASA Ames will remain closed and the meeting will not happen at all.
I strongly believe in science as a powerful platform for enabling multinational cooperation and collaboration. The wicked problems faced by humanity cannot be solved by one nation working alone, but require concerted effort by the brightest minds, no matter the place of their birth.
In a Hail-Mary attempt to see science succeed in spite of political barriers, I am writing in search of a venue that would give the Kepler Science Conference a home, one that will support attendees of all nationalities. I realize that ~400 people is a very large number of attendees, and that we are within a month from when the meeting is supposed to happen, and that we do not have funds to offer, but I believe that science must go on and that makes it worth asking. If you’re aware of a conference facility in the Bay Area that can accommodate ~400 please be in touch (contact info below). At a basic level, we need physical space and bandwidth– and I am willing to entertain any creative alternate solutions you can suggest.
Thanks for your attention– per aspera ad astra.
Lucianne WalkowiczHenry Norris Russell Fellow, Princeton University 2013 TED Senior Fellow L.M.Walkowicz_at_gmail.com (909) ASTRO-LW