By Eugenie Samuel Reich of Nature magazine

When US presidential science adviser John Holdren hosted a dinner and meetings between US and Chinese science officials in May, he must have known it would lead to a high-level stand-off. That came to pass on 11 October, when the Govern­ment Accountability Office (GAO), an arm of Congress, concluded in a report that those activities violated legislation banning scientific cooperation with China by NASA and by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which Holdren directs.

Frank Wolf (Republican, Virginia), the congressman who chairs the subcommittee that funds science agencies including the OSTP and NASA, inserted the ban into a spending bill that was passed last spring. Now, backed by the GAO report, he has asked the US Department of Justice to rein in Holdren's China-related activities; if the department refuses to do so, the matter could end up in the courts.

Holdren--armed with a memo from the justice department saying that he has the right to conduct diplomacy on behalf of US President Barack Obama, even without congressional approval--is showing no signs of backing down. Yet science-policy experts say that the dispute has the potential to cast a cloud over joint academic and commercial research efforts between the two economic superpowers. "This has potential to cut off collaboration with a country on a rapidly rising science and technology trajectory," says Richard P. Suttmeier, a retired expert on Chinese science policy based in Keene Valley, New York.

Relations between the United States and China have their roots in a historic 1972 visit to Beijing by US president Richard Nixon. That led to a 1979 agreement between the two govern­ments for cooperation on scientific activities. Suttmeier estimates that US agencies now have more than 30 agreements on scientific cooperation with their equivalents in the Chinese government. The US National Science Foundation (NSF) opened an office in Beijing in 2006, and the US Department of Energy founded a US$150-million Clean Energy Research Center with China in 2009. Chinese researchers are now more likely to collaborate and co-author papers with scientists from the United States than with those from any other country.

"I don't understand the motivation for trying to cut off something of benefit to both sides," says Martin Briggs, a hydrogeology graduate student at Syracuse University in New York, who spent two months at Fudan University in Shanghai on a fellowship funded by the NSF to learn about water quality.

Wolf's spokesman Daniel Scandling says that the congressman sought to ban NASA and the OSTP from fostering relations with China after NASA administrator Charles Bolden visited the country last year and invited Chinese officials to visit NASA facilities in return. "Congressman Wolf is deeply concerned by China's spying and theft of technology and doesn't think it is wise to give the Chinese access to advanced space technologies," Scandling says.

Few existing NASA activities will be curtailed by the ban. But because much of US science relies on the OSTP for high-level coordination, the ban could derail activities by more agencies than Wolf intends to target. He has publicly questioned the wisdom of NSF activities involving China, but Scandling says that Wolf has no immediate plans to block cooperation by other agencies. Wolf's subcommittee has already approved a bill that would extend the ban into the 2012 fiscal year; it is now awaiting passage through the House. But Mu Rongping, a science-policy analyst at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, doesn't expect a major withdrawal from China-US activities by the United States. It is clear that cooperation on funding of projects and mobility of researchers is win-win for both sides, he explains.

"US bilateral activities in the fields of science, technology and innovation policy are important and necessary for both countries, not just for China," he says.

This article is reproduced with permission from the magazine Nature. The article was first published on October 18, 2011.