NASA has banned Chinese scientists from attending a coming conference at the space agency’s Ames Research Center in California, due to laws introduced in 2011. As a response, some American astronomers are planning to boycott the event.

As the Economist notes, recent policies from the American government indicate a wary, or “suspicious,” attitude toward the Chinese space program.  There is the fear that the Chinese government could steal NASA secrets or that any partnership would be one-sided, notes the Orlando Sentinel. Under a law signed by President Barack Obama in 2011, Chinese scientists cannot work with NASA, and the space agency is prevented from hosting Chinese visitors, reports Agence-France Presse.

Due to that law, NASA can’t work with Chinese scientists and Chinese astronauts, known as taikonauts, are not allowed aboard the International Space Station. Now comes the ban on Chinese researchers attending a conference on exoplanets, the Second Kepler Science Conference, next month at Ames Research Center. The ban has sparked protests and a boycott from American astronomers. 

According to AFP, Debra Fischer of Yale University and Geoff Marcy, from the University of California, Berkeley, are leading the boycott. Marcy said in an email, “"In good conscience, I cannot attend a meeting that discriminates in this way. The meeting is about planets located trillions of miles away, with no national security implications.”

New security policies were put into place after a potential security breach in March 2013. A Chinese scientist, Bo Jiang, was a contractor at the National Institute of Aerospace, working at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia prior to his arrest. Bo purchased a one-way ticket to Beijing but was arrested prior to boarding an airplane at Dulles International Airport. Investigators did not turn up any secret information, but he did plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of violating NASA rules after researchers found explicit images on the confiscated computer belonging to NASA.

At the time of the possible security breach, Administrator Charles Bolden discussed changing NASA policies before the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, which oversees funding for the agency. Bolden said, “I have ordered a moratorium on granting any new access to NASA facilities to individuals from specific designated countries, specifically China, Burma, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan,” reports AFP.

The conference will be live streamed, notes the Economist, allowing those banned to view the proceedings. Due to the short timeframe and cost, moving the event is not an option for the organizers.