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Japanese science faces deep cuts

The government's election promises vowed more support for science, but so far budgets look set to shrink.

Japanese researchers are in uproar about the drastic budget cuts being recommended for science projects by a new cabinet-level government advisory unit.

Since 11 November, working groups of the Government Revitalization Unit, created in September and chaired by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, have been re-evaluating 220 government-funded programmes, including dozens of prominent science projects.

The drastic shake-up will hit the SPring-8 synchrotron in Harima, a planned supercomputer that was destined to be the world's fastest, ocean drilling projects and basic grant programmes, to name but a few.

The recommendations, part of an effort to trim ¥3 trillion (US$ 33.7 billion) off next year's budget, are the most concrete indication so far that Japan's new government intends to make comprehensive, long-lasting changes to the country's research priorities.

Scientists are reacting with frustration and, in some cases, apocalyptic predictions. One prominent crystallographer, who requested anonymity, told Nature: "If this goes on, Japanese scientists, including young scientists, will flow overseas, and Japanese science will die."

Hatoyama's government rode into power in August, promising to shift government expenditure from wasteful projects to initiatives that will benefit the average person, such as ending highway tolls. In August, Hatoyama told Nature that he would nonetheless increase support for science1.

But since then, his government has been slicing into budgets. In October, the science and education ministry reduced the total grants for 30 of the projects under the Funding Program for World-Leading Innovative R&D on Science and Technology (FIRST) from ¥270 billion to ¥100 billion2.

On 8 October, after chairing a meeting of the Council for Science and Technology Policy, Japan's highest science-policy body, Hatoyama noted that his cabinet is "extremely rare" because it includes several engineers, such as himself. "Because we too did research, we know that researchers and academics can get drunk on their own studies," he said, according to the economic newspaper Nihon Keizai Shimbun. "Isn't it more appropriate to promote research that matches a new social system?"

At daily hearings in Tokyo, the unit's three working groups are devoting one hour to each project under review. The sessions can be viewed live on the Internet3, and recommendations for the latest projects to be evaluated are uploaded to the website daily, with the basic message displayed in red. This is a startling amount of transparency for Japan, where budgets are usually delivered after bureaucrats strike deals in back rooms. "It's difficult to cut deals now," says Atsushi Sunami, director of science and technology policy at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.

The 19 members of Working Group 3, which is reviewing science projects, include economists, a financial strategist, local government officials and other representatives of the public, along with a few scientists. It is usually ministry officials, not scientists, who have had to defend the projects under review.

The working group has already recommended that the ¥10.8 billion annual budget of SPring-8, the merits of which "were not adequately explained", be cut by one-third to one-half and be supplemented by charging users.

"The cuts to SPring-8 are devastating," says structural biologist Soichi Wakatsuki, director of the KEK Photon Factory in Tsukuba and a collaborator with SPring-8. "There's no other synchrotron in the world that is supposed to earn so much of its own income." He laments the review process as "one-sided", adding that researchers are given "no real chance" to defend their projects. Tomitake Tsukihara, a crystallographer at the University of Hyogo, adds that protein crystallography and other basic science done at SPring-8 will suffer, and is organizing a protest in response to the recommendation.

A supercomputer planned by RIKEN, Japan's network of research labs, had already been thrown into confusion by the sudden departure of electronics giants NEC and Hitachi from the project earlier this year4. The project should now be "virtually eliminated", says the working group, which saw no need for Japan to host the world's fastest supercomputer.

Other recommendations made by the group include slashing the funding for RIKEN's BioResource Center and its Plant Science Center, with budget cuts of one-third proposed for each; cutting Japan's deep-sea-drilling programme by 10–20%; and at least halving the budget for the Institute for Research on Earth Evolution in Yokosuka. In addition, various competitive grant programmes, including the Grants-in-Aid programme — the bread and butter of most researchers — should be "simplified and reduced". Further recommendations on a prototype Japanese–European fusion reactor, planned as part of the international ITER project to prove atomic fusion as a power source, were expected as Nature went to press.

Asked whether the proposed cuts contradict earlier pledges to increase scientific funding, or whether increases in funding to other fields will offset these proposed cuts, a representative for Hatoyama said that these issues were "under discussion".

The working groups' recommendations will be considered by the Government Revitalization Unit before being submitted to the finance ministry, which will announce its budget in late December.

References

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  2. Cyranoski, D. Nature 461, 854-855 (2009).

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  3. http://www.cao.go.jp/sasshin/

  4. Cyranoski, D. Nature doi:10.1038/news.2009.495 (2009).

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Cyranoski, D. Japanese science faces deep cuts. Nature 462, 258–259 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/462258a

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