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Japan rolls out elite science funds

FIRST scheme targets large grants to world-leading researchers.

Akira Tonomura has received ¥5 billion to build his dream microscope. Credit: D. CYRANOSKI

Physicist Akira Tonomura struggled for seven years to raise funding for his dream project: developing a microscope able to image three-dimensional arrays of atoms in unprecedented detail. Last March, with little hope of finding this financial support, he even considered retiring from his research fellowship at the Hitachi Advanced Research Laboratory in Hatoyama, Japan.

Then, last month, the Japanese government awarded him ¥5 billion (US$53.6 million) — the biggest grant for an individual research project in the country's history. Tonomura has already set to work on creating his ultra-high-voltage holographic electron microscope, which will measure the phase of electrons scattering off a sample, rather than their intensity, as in conventional electron microscopes. These phase measurements can produce an image with much higher resolution.

Tonomura was one of 30 scientists to win a grant from the ¥100-billion Funding Program for World-Leading Innovative R&D on Science and Technology (FIRST). The awards, announced on 9 March after a rollercoaster six months that saw the programme cut drastically, mark a major shift in the landscape of Japanese science funding.

At between ¥1.8 billion and 5 billion per project, many of the grants are more than double the size of the largest from the Japan Science and Technology Agency, which until now offered the country's most presti­gious and generous funding awards. And unlike conventional grants in Japan, FIRST awards give researchers the freedom to spend their grant money at any time during the grant's four-year period.

Funding shift

In general, FIRST's 30 grants are targeted towards areas in which Japan is already a world leader, such as microscopy, stem-cell research and electronics. Tonomura, one of only two scientists to receive the largest possible FIRST grant of ¥5 billion, pioneered electron holography in the 1960s. The other big winnner is Kyoto University's Shinya Yamanaka, who wowed the world of stem-cell research in 2006 with his group's creation of induced pluri­potent stem cells.

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The awards also mark the latest chapter in Japan's effort to spend a greater proportion of its overall research budget on competitive grants (see 'Getting competitive'), a process that seems to be putting bigger chunks of money into the hands of fewer scientists. It is not yet clear how this shift is affecting the scientific community, says Atsushi Sunami, a science-policy expert at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. However, many scientists in Japan have been privately critical of the heavy concentration of funds, which they believe could be better spent on a larger number of smaller, focused research projects.

Part of the motivation for the shift in funding was the perception that other countries were benefiting from greater investment in competitive grants. Earlier efforts to direct funding into large competitive grants included a centres of excellence programme rolled out in 2002 (see Nature 419, 547; 2002) and the World Premier International Research Centers that were created in 2007 (see Nature 447, 362–363; 2007).

At the same time, organizational reforms in 2004 saw basic operating budgets for universities and research institutes pared down by 1% per year. At the University of Tokyo, for example, these operating budgets accounted for 46% of total income in 2004; this shrank to 40% by 2009. However, that decrease was balanced by a growth in competitive funding over the same period, upping its contribution to the university's income from 30% to 35%. That proportion is sure to grow: the university has won funding for five FIRST projects, bringing in an extra ¥17.6 billion.

Scientists at the university are wasting no time. Although his FIRST funding cheque had yet to arrive, Yoshinori Tokura held a retreat on 30 March for core members of his ¥3.1-billion study on correlated electrons. The group hopes that controlling the interactions between electrons — based on characteristics such as charge and spin — could help to develop materials useful for energy-efficient electronics, high-temperature superconductors and new types of battery.

Meanwhile, Shizuo Akira of Osaka University has already started spending his ¥2.5-billion FIRST grant, which he says will give him the freedom to "do some gambling" at the frontiers of immunology. Akira — the most cited scientist in the world in 2005–06 and 2006–07, according to academic data-provider Thomson Scientific — hopes to create a comprehensive picture of the immunological mechanisms involved in eliminating pathogens and cancer cells, and to then try to control those mechanisms. He has already hired postdocs and technicians, and has ordered a two-photon microscope, an electron microscope, mass-spectrometry equipment and DNA-sequencing machines.

Not so bold

Despite the air of excitement that the awards have generated, some scientists point out that the FIRST grants were supposed to be bigger, and the projects bolder. In June 2009, the Council for Science and Technology Policy under the then-ruling Liberal Democratic Party announced that FIRST would distribute ¥270 billion. Council members had already selected the 30 recipients before the Democratic Party of Japan came to power.

“I want to create a history-making instrument. , ”

The new government promised to re-evaluate all large spending programmes (see Nature 461, 854–855; 2009), eventually slashing the budget and capping the largest projects at ¥5 billion. Some scientists had hoped to get considerably more: Yamanaka, for example, originally applied for ¥15 billion.

All of the grantees then had to reapply for their funding with scaled-back projects. "Every strategic research plan was shrunk and every brave enterprise was cut," says Tokura. Yamanaka, for example, has dropped plans to carry out preclinical trials with induced pluripotent stem cells for diabetes and other diseases. Tonomura, meanwhile, says that his FIRST grant will still leave him ¥2 billion short of what his project requires, an amount he hopes to persuade Hitachi to chip in.

But with the money he already has in hand, he has no immediate plans to retire: "I want to create a history-making instrument," he says.

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D. CYRANOSKI

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SOURCE: COUNCIL FOR SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY POLICY

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Cyranoski, D. Japan rolls out elite science funds. Nature 464, 966–967 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/464966a

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