A plan by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) to close its overseas offices, first reported on the Science | Business website, is getting mixed reviews in the scientific community. Last week, NSF announced it would shutter its outposts in Beijing, Brussels, and Tokyo by summer; two U.S. staff will return to the agency’s headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, and local staff will be reassigned to U.S. embassies. The change reflects a desire for NSF to be “more strategic and focused” in its international affairs, says Rebecca Keiser, head of NSF’s international office.
“This is definitely the wrong move,” asserts Hitoshi Murayama, a theoretical physicist at University of California (UC), Berkeley, and the Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe at the University of Tokyo, who has worked with NSF’s Tokyo office on events for graduate students and U.S. scientists in Japan. NSF underestimates “the importance of personal connections [in promoting] critical international collaborations in science,” he says. “The U.S. is becoming more inward looking.”
NSF set up the Tokyo office in 1960. It established a European office in Paris in 1984 and relocated it to Brussels in 2015. The Beijing office opened in 2006. The office websites claim they were instrumental in fostering international cooperation in ocean drilling, earthquake engineering, studies of gravitational waves, and academic exchange programs.
“It’s really a shock,” says William Chang, who opened NSF’s Beijing office and is now special adviser for the Asia-Pacific region for the University of Hawaii system. NSF’s China representative, he says, “is constantly in touch” with counterparts at the country’s main science agencies, collecting information on China’s scientific strengths and helping facilitate visits of NSF-funded researchers—all at a cost of about $650,000 a year. The office has also helped resolve crises: For instance, during his tenure as NSF’s China representative, Chang in 2007 intervened when a team of geoscientists from Arizona State University and UC Davis was accused of illegal surveying while conducting fieldwork in western China. Chang later helped negotiate the return of their equipment and field data. A recent feather in the cap of NSF’s Beijing office is its efforts to broker connections between U.S. and Chinese scientists who study the ecology of infectious disease; it is organizing a workshop on the topic in China in April.
Chang says he’s perplexed that NSF would voluntarily sacrifice its on-the-ground capacity abroad. “Why would you want to do that to yourself?” he asks. “This is really short-sighted.”
NSF’s Keiser disagrees, and calls the decision “strategic.” Nor was it made in haste, she says: The fate of the offices “has been under study for quite a while.” A few years ago, an internal NSF review recommended that the agency consider expanding its overseas presence by opening an office in Brazil and either launching an Asia-wide office in Singapore or broadening the remit of the Tokyo office to serve as a regional hub. The decision to shutter the offices altogether reflects NSF’s desire to be more nimble in responding to opportunities “where great science is percolating,” Keiser says. That means dispatching small teams on trips of up to a week in duration to size up the state of a specific discipline and explore collaborations.
As a pilot project of the new approach, an NSF-led team visited Australia last October to discuss new research avenues in gravitational wave physics. “They brought a wonderful report back” on potential projects that would build on the stunning findings of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, Keiser says. Other possible topics for exploratory visits, she says, are synthetic biology in Germany and the Netherlands, and burgeoning investments in information technology in the Balkans.