Japan's research institutes face cuts in maintenance budgets

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Cold prospects: radio telescopes may lack enough funds to run. Credit: NAO

Japan's structural reform of its national finances has left many of its research institutes facing substantial cuts in their maintenance budgets — even though the country is continuing to increase its spending on science and technology as part of a government plan to double spending on science between 1996 and 2001.

Although the overall budget for the 1998 fiscal year, beginning on 1 April, sees the smallest increase in recent years at 0.4 per cent, funding for science and technology has won a 4.9 per cent increase (see Nature 391, 111; 1998). The Ministry for Education, Science, Sports and Culture (Monbusho), whose overall budget fell by 0.4 per cent, appeared to maintain its support for research by increasing its science and technology spending by 5.1 per cent.

In practice, however, research institutes under Monbusho expect a difficult year ahead. The budget for the next fiscal year, which was approved by the Diet (Japan's parliament) this month, includes a 15 per cent cut in maintenance budgets. This is a result of the government's efforts to reform Japan's ailing financial system under the newly formed Fiscal Structural Reform Act.

Most of the large research institutes set up by Monbusho for joint university use, such as the National Astronomical Observatory (NAO), the Institute for Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS) and the National Institute of Genetics (NIG), will face such cuts, even though their overall research budgets remain the same as last year.

At NAO, which provides advanced observational facilities to researchers throughout Japan, the cuts would affect general maintenance of the facility, such as operation of the telescopes, and paying expenses and electricity bills.

Although the observatory has received substantial funding for its new projects, such as the construction of ‘Subaru’, the world's largest optical-infrared telescope, due to begin operation this summer in Hawaii, the budget cut would make it difficult to carry out new research at NAO.

“The situation is ironic — possessing all this sophisticated equipment will mean very little if we can't switch it on,” says Keiichi Kodaira, NAO's director. “Without being able to maintain the facility, it would be impossible to carry out internationally competitive research.”

Most institutes have started to plan cost-cutting measures for the next fiscal year, trying to minimize damage to their research projects. “We are still trying to plan various measures for overcoming this difficulty,” says NIG's director, Yoshiki Hotta. According to Hotta, the budget cut would mainly affect computer maintenance, species preservation and feeding of laboratory animals.

Officials at ISAS expect that the 15 per cent cut would affect basic research on the development of satellite launch vehicles. Atsuhiro Nishida, director of ISAS, is particularly worried that the cut would jeopardize future research, especially if all efforts are directed towards saving current research projects.

The problem lies with the government's general account, which supplies the national institutes' maintenance budgets, and which has been cut across the board to meet the government's restructuring plan. Under the plan, government deficits must be reduced from the current level of 5.9 per cent to 3 per cent of gross domestic product.

Various government-related science ministries and agencies have managed to maintain growth in their overall budgets by expanding special accounts that operate separately from the general account. But, in the case of the national institutes, these budgets cannot be allocated to maintenance costs.

According to Nishida, the funding system is badly designed for supporting long-term research projects such as those being done at ISAS. “If the government is to fully implement the ‘five-year plan’ to support scientific research, they will have to create a system under which scientists are given an environment to carry out competitive research,” says Kodaira.

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