In Young’s view, the Wolf Amendment hurts scientific innovation, limiting the diversity of perspectives, and propels China to “compete even further with what we’re doing,” she says.
Outside of those federal restrictions and disclosure requirements, though, U.S. radio astronomers can and do work with China. Green Bank scientists, for instance, consulted on FAST’s development. McLaughlin has a National Science Foundation grant that sends her WVU students to China every summer. She worried about including that exchange in her grant request, thinking she might encounter restrictions or extra scrutiny, but that wasn’t the case. “We’ve had no issues with that at all,” she says.
China’s participation in the International Pulsar Timing Array, a global endeavor that brings together smaller-scale projects such as NANOGrav, has similarly not affected NANOGrav’s ability to get U.S. funding, according to McLaughlin. She is grateful, scientifically and personally. “Most of the Chinese colleagues that we work with really closely, we know very well,” she says. “There’s a lot of mutual trust.”
That trust may be key to the research because now a connection to Chinese facilities is necessary for some types of research. Many of the observations McLaughlin and her team would like to make, she says, can’t happen without such truly massive telescopes.
That China hosts the world’s largest telescope is not an anomaly: The country has been amping up its global scientific presence for the past couple of decades. In astronomy, for instance, the country recently launched two satellites that watch the whole sky for gamma-ray bursts, some of the brightest events in the universe; NASA’s two gamma-ray observatories are 17 and 13 years old. China also recently built a physics laboratory deep underground, where the earth above shields it and allows for pristine data collection, and the country is planning to construct a steerable radio telescope ever-so-slightly larger than Green Bank.
On the collaborative front, China plans to share samples from its Chang’e-5 lunar lander, which plopped back down to Earth in December 2020, with the international community (although U.S. policy may prevent some of that sharing).
Such infrastructure and collaboration help the progression of science itself. But they also function as political tools. Scientific prowess is not just the pursuit of pure knowledge: It’s also a form of what political scientists call soft power.
“Soft power is the ability to influence others through offering them things they want,” says Victoria Samson, the Washington office director at Secure World Foundation, a space-sustainability think tank. Sometimes, that opens avenues for collaboration in other, unrelated areas, such as trade. The general idea, Samson continues, follows the maxim “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”