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Reaching out


The National Science Foundation looks to link up

For anyone starting a new job in the past year, things have been a bit out of the ordinary. Kendra Sharp, who in March took the reins as head of the Office of International Science and Engineering at the US National Science Foundation, not only started her role during a global pandemic but also at the start of a new US administration with big plans for the NSF.

The national funder, which has a budget of $8.5 billion (£6.2bn) for fiscal year 2021, funds research in all non-medical fields of science and engineering. One of the core functions of the Office of International Science and Engineering is to facilitate and support international partnerships and networks.

Some of these partnerships have been critical to the global response to Covid-19, while others have been disrupted. “We’ve all learned some different ways of doing things and how international collaboration looked in the past is not the only form that it will take in the future,” says Sharp. 

Her office has recently funded a number of projects looking at the future of international collaboration after the pandemic, she adds. “Our international collaboration is evolving in a positive way in that we are looking at new ways of doing things,” she says.

Community connections

For NSF funding calls open to international partners, Sharp explains that NSF would fund the US side of the partnership and the non-US partners will be funded by another agency, usually in their own country.

“So really, the best way to engage with NSF as a research agency for people who are not located within the US is through the community of our US scientists, engineers, and educators,” she explains. If researchers do not already have links with colleagues in the US, the NSF awards database is a great place to start looking for collaborators, she says.

NSF also has specific arrangements with funding agencies in some countries where they will issue joint calls. For instance, there is a long-running programme on the ecology and evolution of infectious diseases in partnership with funders in the UK, China and Israel, as well as a collaboration scheme with the European Research Council.

Bigger budgets

Sharp says her priorities are to marry up the NSF’s vision with the policies of US president Joe Biden’s administration. In his ambitious infrastructure plan, announced on 31 March, Biden called on Congress to invest $50 billion in NSF to create a technology directorate in the next eight years, followed up with a request to boost spending at the agency by 20 per cent in the coming fiscal year.

Sharp says she is mindful of the Biden administration’s four priorities: pandemic response, economic recovery, climate change and racial equity.

“So what we’re looking at in terms of supporting the international partnerships is, first of all, fulfilling the NSF vision, but then also looking at where we overlap with the administration priorities,” she says.

“Where I see changes within the international portfolio is to really emphasise partnerships and be looking at ways to build up collaborations at speed and scale.”

Global networks

Before joining NSF, Sharp held an engineering professorship at Oregon State University, where she had a focus on international development and founded a humanitarian engineering programme. While she says she has to be agnostic in her role at NSF, “when we when we think about equity and accessibility, then I do start to think about the global science community”.

“NSF as an agency has partnerships with other US agencies, and we do fund different types of science and engineering research that really underpin global development,” Sharp says, highlighting a programme under which NSF partners with the US Agency for International Development. The Partnerships for International Research and Education, which is currently on hold will be relaunched in fiscal year 2022, Sharp says.

Another programme led by Sharp’s office is AccelNet, which brings together research networks across the globe to tackle major research challenges. In September 2020, NSF awarded $17 million to 10 ‘networks of networks’ and Sharp says they are reviewing a new round of proposals.

“It’s a programme that we anticipate continuing into the future and that’s a great place for international researchers to engage if there are international networks out there to connect up with,” she says.

One recurring theme in the US research community in recent years has been the ratcheting up of research security with increased scrutiny over foreign influence on research, particularly in the face of competition between the US and China. In 2020, the NSF created a new position of chief of research security strategy and policy, taken up by Sharp’s predecessor Rebecca Spyke Keiser.

Sharp says the NSF maintains an emphasis on pushing forward on grand challenges, and that requires global collaboration. For that reason, she says, “we’re not stopping collaborating, that’s for sure”.

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service and also appeared in Research Fortnight. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com