The National Science Foundation announced a plan to close its offices in Beijing, Brussels, and Tokyo by this summer and reassign local staff in those countries to US embassies, Science reports. But that plan is getting "mixed reviews" from the research community, which worries that the NSF's stated desire to be more focused is really just insularity, the article adds.
The NSF set up its office in Tokyo in 1960, its European office in Paris in 1984, and its Beijing office in 2006. The European office was relocated to Brussels in 2015.
"This is definitely the wrong move," UC Berkeley and University of Tokyo theoretical physicist Hitoshi Murayama tells Science. Murayama, who has worked with the NSF's Tokyo office on events for graduate students and US scientists in Japan, adds that the NSF is underestimating "the importance of personal connections [in promoting] critical international collaborations in science."
William Chang, who opened the NSF's Beijing office and is now special adviser for the Asia-Pacific region for the University of Hawaii system, tells Science that the decision is a "shock" and "really short-sighted."
But the NSF says the decision is "strategic," and was made after a long period of consideration and review. "The decision to shutter the offices altogether reflects NSF's desire to be more nimble in responding to opportunities 'where great science is percolating,' [Rebecca Keiser, head of NSF's international office] 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," according to Science.
To test out this new approach, the NSF sent a team to Australia last October to discuss new research avenues in gravitational wave physics. The foundation is also exploring synthetic biology in Germany and the Netherlands and information technology in the Balkans, Science says.