Despite an austere budget that reflects Japan's struggling economy, the government has yet again agreed to increase science and technology spending for the 1998 fiscal year, beginning on 1 April. Overall science expenditure across all ministries will increase by 4.9 per cent, with particularly increased support for basic science.
The overall increase in the research budget is relatively modest compared with past increases. But science has fared reasonably well considering that public spending for other areas, such as agriculture, forestries and fisheries and overseas development assistance, has plunged dramatically.
The increase in science spending is also in line with Japan's five-year plan for science and technology, under which the government has promised to increase spending on research by 50 per cent between 1996 and 2001.
The total government budget of ¥77,670 billion (US$595 billion), an increase of 0.4 per cent from the budget for the current fiscal year, is the smallest increase in recent years. The figures, which were approved by the cabinet at the end of December, have yet to be approved by the Diet (Japan's parliament) in its regular session, which starts on 12 January.
This is the first budget compiled under the terms of the Fiscal Structural Reform Act, which came into effect in November. The act seeks to cap major spending commitments in order to hold government deficits to 3 per cent of gross domestic product by 2003, and encourages budgeting restraint.
But science spending, particularly in basic research, has increased. Life sciences have done particularly well, with brain- and genome-related research gaining substantial budget increases (see table). This is in line with last year's opening of the Brain Science Institute and this year's planned opening of the Genome Frontier Research Institute, both backed by the Science and Technology Agency (STA) and the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research (RIKEN).
STA's total budget, however, has fallen by 0.2 per cent largely because of cuts in support for nuclear research. This is the first time in STA's history that nuclear research has not ranked top in terms of spending. Basic research, with an 11.8 per cent spending increase, becomes the largest category in STA's budget. Spending on nuclear research will fall by 4.9 per cent, and the budget for the Nuclear Power and Fuel Corporation, hit by scandals over nuclear accidents, will be cut by 10 per cent.
The overall budget for the Ministry of Education, Science, Sports and Culture (Monbusho) has decreased by 0.4 per cent, as a result of cuts in support for education, but its expenditure on scientific research has increased by 5.1 per cent. Postdoctoral fellowship schemes at Monbusho, aimed at increasing the number of Japan's postdocs to 10,000 by the end of the decade, have been given increased funding. But national universities face budget cuts, resulting in a substantial increase in university tuition fees from 1999.
Both Monbusho and the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MITI) will receive increased spending to promote collaborative research between universities and industry.
One area to receive a marked increase in spending is the drive to curb global warming, following the adoption of the Kyoto protocol which sets targets for reducing greenhouse gases (see Nature 390, 649; 1997). At the Kyoto conference last month, Japan agreed to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 6 per cent from 1990 levels between the years 2008 and 2012. The Environment Agency will receive increased spending for efforts to reduce its greenhouse gases, and MITI will be allocated funds for reducing energy expenditure and for more research into alternative energy sources.
The budget plan's critics claim that reducing greenhouse gases to the required level will mean that Japan's energy production must become more dependent on nuclear power. This, says one MITI official, will require 20 additional nuclear-power reactors to be built. But with considerable cuts in spending on nuclear power, many believe that would be impossible.
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The Lancet (1998)