NSF Celebrates 50 Years of U.S.-Japan Collaborations

"Science diplomacy is a hot topic, but no one knows exactly what it means," Norman Neureiter, a chemist with a distinguished career both in the U.S. Government and at Texas Instruments, said at a symposium in Tokyo on 6 October. But Neureiter, who is now a science policy advisor to AAAS (publisher of Science), pointed to a good example of "science diplomacy in action": The National Science Foundation's (NSF's) Tokyo Regional Office, which was the subject of the symposium. At the celebratory affair—the office was born 50 years ago—researchers from both Japan and the United States recalled highlights of past bilateral cooperation, presented a look at some ongoing projects, and outlined some challenges for the future.

NSF took a bold step in opening the Tokyo office in October 1960 when the agency was just 10 years old and had a budget of $150 million. The original objective was simple: track science and technology developments in Japan. But the mandate expanded dramatically when NSF became the implementing agency for the U.S.-Japan Committee on Scientific Cooperation, set up by President John F. Kennedy and Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda in 1961 as part of efforts to restore an intellectual dialogue between the two countries. Neureiter managed the new program in the NSF International Affairs Office from 1963 to 1965.

Anne Emig, the current office director, said it is nearly impossible to fully list the projects, exchanges, and collaborations that the outpost has helped arranged over the years with counterpart agencies in Japan. Efforts include placing NSF-funded postdocs on summer-long stints with Japanese researchers. One beneficiary of this young researcher exchange program was Matthew Julius, who studies the evolution of diatoms, a group of microscopic algae, now at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. At the symposium, he spoke of how a summer in Japan in 1998 resulted in ongoing collaborations, not only between himself and his hosts at Tokyo Gakugei University but also between the next generation of researchers going through both labs. The network is more like an extended family, he said.

The office has also helped coordinate big science, including multidecade, multi-hundred-million dollar megaprojects, such as the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, that probes the sea floor using ships supplied by Japan, the United States, and Europe, and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), a 66-antenna radio telescope now under construction at an altitude of 5000 meters in the Chilean Andes. (Emig noted that those two projects are actually multilateral efforts.)

Symposium attendees took the opportunity to good-naturedly urge NSF to make decisions more quickly. Shoken Miyama, director of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, described how researchers and funding agencies in the United States, Japan, and Europe had negotiated "different cultures, different budgetary processes, and different time schedules" to get ALMA heading toward the start of scientific operations "with no major problems." But astronomers are now planning a 30-meter telescope that would be a multinational effort. One hitch is that "NSF hasn't made up its mind yet" about funding the project, he said.