Upstart government brings fresh priorities to science.
In September, 30 research groups in Japan, led by some of the country's biggest scientific names, were celebrating their selection to a new ¥270-billion (US$3-billion) funding programme. But the programme is now under fire from both politicians and researchers, and its funding may be cut by almost two-thirds.
The projects were selected on 4 September — five days after the ruling Liberal Democratic Party lost an election in a landslide, and 12 days before it had to yield power to the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). The DPJ needed money to fund campaign promises, such as stipends for families with children (see Nature 460, 938; 2009), and asked all ministries to cut back by at least ¥3 trillion the ¥14.7 trillion that had been allocated this spring as part of a government supplemental funding package.
On 6 October, the science and education ministry announced that it would cut 21% from its supplementary budget. It has not revealed details of where those cuts would be made, but Japan's deputy prime minister Naoto Kan has reportedly laid out a framework by which the Funding Program for World-Leading Innovative R&D on Science and Technology (FIRST) would be reduced from ¥270 billion to ¥100 billion. According to the plan, which had not been made official as Nature went to press, ¥70 billion would be cut altogether and the other ¥100 billion would be used for smaller grants to other groups or transferred to a scheme for sending young scientists abroad.
The 30 groups scheduled to receive FIRST funding span a variety of fields, from mathematics to neurogenetics and nanobiotechnology. The list includes many of Japan's most famous scientists, including Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University, who received funding to set up a stem-cell bank for the induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells he created; Shizuo Akira of Osaka University, for a project on manipulating immune responses; and Nobel laureate Koichi Tanaka of Shimadzu Corporation in Kyoto, for a mass-spectrometry project on drug discovery and diagnosis.
The shortage of new faces, critics say, could stem from a rushed application and selection process. The 3-week application period ended on 24 July; a team of 24 scientists then gunned through the 565 proposals to reduce the field to 60. One team member told Nature that the committee often had to abstain or make ill-informed judgements based on skimming materials. "It's incredible to give that kind of money with no long-term feasibility study or in-depth analysis," says the member, who asked to remain anonymous.
Takafumi Matsui, a planetary scientist at the Chiba Institute of Technology who sat on the second-stage committee that chose the final 30 grantees, defends the process. "I normally read about a lot of fields of science," he says, "so I could quickly judge their merits."
Many critics took exception to the premise of funding such large-scale, focused projects, saying that fundamental research could be losing out. For instance, on 3 October Shinichi Aizawa, president of the Japanese Society of Developmental Biologists, called for policy-makers to better balance applied research with basic science.
Yamanaka told Nature that he was reserving comment until the DPJ makes an official statement about the fate of the programme.
Atsushi Sunami, director of the science and technology policy doctoral programme at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, also thinks that the grants are too big. "With this kind of funding, you could do more high-risk, high-return smaller projects," he says. "What will the extra funding achieve for these groups that are already funded? It's not clear. You're pouring water into something that's already full."
But two aspects of the FIRST programme could set a good precedent for Japan, Sunami says. Grantees can take the funding to any institution they please — an attempt to introduce competition and fluidity among research centres. And the grants are given for five-year terms so that grantees don't need to rush to spend, and potentially waste, money at the end of each fiscal year.
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Cyranoski, D. Japan to slash huge grant scheme. Nature 461, 854 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/461854a