Circling the airport (or possibly, the drain)…

It’s been just over a week since I originally posted about the Kepler Science Conference, so I thought I’d post a quick update.

First of all, I’d like to thank everyone who has been in contact about alternate venue options for the meeting. I am really heartened at the sheer number of responses offering either actual physical space, introductions to venues, creative solutions, or just words of encouragement. It speaks strongly to how supportive people are of science, and in particular of international collaboration. It seems many people out there are willing to dig in and find solutions to a daunting problem… would any of you like to run for Congress? Seriously.

Towards the end of last week, AMD stepped forward and generously offered to host the conference (thank you in particular to John Fritz of AMD, who first got in touch with me and has been the primary point of contact in making this happen). However, flaring tension over the barring of Chinese foreign nationals between Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Charlie Bolden (the NASA administrator) have turned the meeting into something of a political football. At the end of last week, NASA moved to reopen the applications of the potential Chinese attendees and approve their attendance, but as the government is still shut down (with 97% of NASA employees furloughed), there is no one to process the approvals.

Chair of the scientific organizing committee, Alan Boss, was quoted as saying:

“The efforts of NASA’s Ames Research Center to ensure that our Chinese astronomer colleagues will be able to attend the Second Kepler Science Conference have been halted by the fact these approvals must be entered into a computer system at NASA HQ in Washington DC,” Boss told FoxNews.com.

“Because of the ongoing federal government shutdown, there is no one at NASA HQ who can complete the approval process.”

“The ability of scientists to attend an open scientific meeting about the spectacular results produced by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope is another likely fatality of the failure of the U.S. Congress to enact a federal budget for FY2014,” Boss added.

The bottom line: if the shutdown ends soon, the meeting will proceed as planned, at NASA Ames, and will be open to those Chinese researchers whose applications are scheduled to be approved. However, if the government continues to be shut down for much longer, the meeting will not proceed at all, unless it is moved. In the meantime, given that the meeting was convened by NASA, and the vast majority of the organizing committee are NASA employees, we are stuck circling in the same wait-and-see holding pattern as everyone else who depends on the US government.  

Again, I am so grateful to everyone who has tried to help make this meeting happen in spite of the current political quagmire. It truly is a testament to the fact that there are people out there thinking on a planetary scale, who are willing to help solve problems in trying times. Though I believe this meeting is important, what is more poignant to me than the troubles of 400 astrophysicists with uncertainty about a conference venue are the trouble of those for whom the government shutdown means uncertainty about basic human needs.

Get it together, Congress.

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