US science agency quietly recalls senior officials in Europe, Asia, citing staff shortfalls

20 Feb 2018 | News

Some see National Science Foundation move as latest retreat in US diplomacy under Trump administration – but agency says it will send more science envoys on visits abroad

Source: National Science Foundation

The National Science Foundation (NSF), a US government agency that funds a variety of scientific and engineering projects, is recalling the directors of its outposts in Brussels and Beijing, in a move criticised as the latest weakening of the country’s diplomatic power in science under the Trump administration.

Both directors, Sonia Ortega in Brussels and Nancy Sung in Beijing, were told this month that they were being withdrawn, Science|Business has learned. They were offered roles in agency headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, from March 1. Internally, the NSF has said that the decision is necessitated by staffing shortfalls in the headquarters.

However, among those scientists already fearful that their country is turning inwards under an administration that has neglected to fill a few major scientific vacancies, the staff withdrawals are likely to be viewed as a retreat in science diplomacy. President Trump has yet to appoint a science adviser and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; it is the longest period the position has been unfilled since the 1970s. The State Department, meanwhile, has not replaced a science and technology adviser position that became vacant last summer.

Many scientists see the ripple effect of this neglect in Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, and the administration’s proposal to drastic scale-back foreign aid, which would hurt research to combat HIV/AIDS in the world's poorest countries.

‘Soft power’ at risk?

“This is the new environment we are in,” said former US ambassador to the EU, Anthony Gardner, whose old high-profile job remains unfilled in Brussels since Trump took office. “All levers of soft power are being cut right now – science is just one of them. We’re beginning to see massive changes to how we do diplomacy.”

Internally, however, the NSF is citing budgetary issues, rather than political considerations, in the move. It has told its staff that it will not abandon its foreign role, and in compensation for the diplomatic recalls will instead increase the number of subject matter experts it sends abroad on missions. The Brussels office is expected to maintain one administrative staff member for bare-bones operations; Beijing is expected keep the two staff it currently has.

“The NSF is firmly committed to international cooperation in science, engineering, and education research,” said Rebecca Keiser, head of the office of international science and engineering, in an emailed statement to Science|Business. “We value our international partnerships, and recognise the most challenging science requires international cooperation.” Keiser added that the agency would provide more information on its international strategy next week.

The scale-back is “very disappointing” and could weaken key relationships built up over time, said Gardner, the former US ambassador. “I think we will discover to our regret later that the money we might save now leads to more cost and harm in the future,” he added.

But not everyone agrees that the NSF staff recall constitutes a broader US step-back on science. “I think it is largely about costs,” said Peter Tindemans, secretary-general of Euroscience, a grassroots association of researchers in Europe. “The US science community does not have the mind-set of withdrawing from the world.” US science diplomacy also happens via other US agencies, such as the Office of Naval Research and the United States Geological Survey, which maintain foreign outposts.

Three offices involved

The NSF’s European office was formed in Paris in 1984 and relocated to Brussels in 2015. The Beijing office opened in 2006. A third foreign office, in Tokyo, was formed in 1960, but has been without a director on site for about a year.

Research figures in Brussels said they would miss close cooperation with NSF.

“The relationship is extremely valuable to us and to all our members,” said Stephan Kuster, secretary-general of Science Europe, which represents national research organisations in Brussels. “NSF’s office made cooperation very easy and rewarding.”

The small office in Brussels played a lead role in brokering an updated cooperation agreement on science between the European Commission and US government in 2016, Gardner said. Under the new arrangement, US researchers can now partner with researchers under Horizon 2020 without signing the research programme’s formal grant agreement.

Previously, many universities and institutes in the US were put off by Horizon 2020 sign-on conditions. “It was a very frustrating issue – we needed a team on the ground to help unlock it,” Gardner said. More recently, the Brussels office has helped coordinate the US government position on the EU’s next research programme, Framework Programme 9, which starts in 2021.

The Brussels office also introduces European researchers to funding opportunities in the US. NSF supports more than 750 active grants to US researchers collaborating with German counterparts, for example.

After Norway and Switzerland, the US is the biggest non-EU participant in Horizon 2020, sending around 4,000 applications to Brussels between 2014 and 2016 (China comes second). US researchers have been involved in 139 Horizon 2020 grants, as of October 2017, worth €25.4 million. The country has one of the highest success rates in EU research proposals – currently 18 per cent, above the EU average of 12.6 per cent. The country was the biggest non-European participant in the EU research programme between 2007 and 2013 – a collaboration worth some €82 million.

Keeping up with China

The case for maintaining senior NSF staff in China, which is rocketing forward in technology fields such as artificial intelligence, is “probably even stronger,” said Gardner. Earlier this year, the agency reported that the number of scientific publications from China in 2016 outnumbered those from the US for the first time: 426,000 versus 409,000, underscoring an intense battle between the two countries for scientific supremacy in the future.

Gardner continued: “Who else will have the eyes and ears to the ground for us in China? The human aspect is still really important for unblocking problems.”

Word of the NSF scale-back came right after the Trump administration abandoned its original plan for deep cuts to the agency, which funds nearly one quarter of all basic research conducted in US colleges and universities, and other major research agencies. Trump’s original 2019 plan for NSF would have slashed the agency's budget by nearly 30 per cent, from roughly €6.1 billion in 2017 to €4.27 billion. A surprise revision last week rescued the agency’s budget, which is now set at €6.1 billion for 2019.

The three overseas offices together cost more than $1 million a year – in office rent, support staff and director salaries. But it is difficult to say just how much the NSF would save by withdrawing its top overseas staff, as the support staff and leases will continue.

“If pulling NSF out of Brussels and Beijing frees up budget for programmes, that might not be a bad thing,” said Peter Chase, a senior fellow in the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund, and former US Chamber of Commerce vice president for Europe from 2010-2016.

The lack of senior NSF staff abroad will not dramatically alter the level of science collaboration between the US and EU, which will remain “both wide and deep”, Chase argued. Aside from the NSF, the European Commission lists the US National Institutes of Health and the non-governmental Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as its other main interlocutors on science.

Having a presence on the ground is undoubtedly useful, however, Chase added. “They have the benefit of knowing the ecosystem; in situations where there may be a science problem or misunderstanding between the US and Brussels, your attaché can often have a better feel of who to go to,” he said.

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