Reona Esaki, Susumu Tonegawa, Shigefumi Mori, Ryoji Noyori and Makoto Kobayashi have all criticized a Japanese government body's plans to slash science budgets. Credit: Kyodo

At a hastily arranged symposium at the University of Tokyo yesterday, four Japanese Nobel laureates rallied against the budget-slashing policies of their new government.

The criticisms come as government-appointed working groups of roughly 20 people — with few scientists among them — reach the final week of hearings that are recommending budget cuts for 220 government-funded projects, including many major research initiatives. The recommendations form part of the government's effort to trim ¥3 trillion (US$33.7 billion) off next year's budget.

The proposed cuts would hit the SPring-8 synchrotron in Harima and a project to build the world's fastest supercomputer, among others. But they also call for reductions in the grants that form the lifeline for many scientists (see 'Japanese science faces deep cuts').

At the end of the Tokyo meeting, the audience was asked whether they supported a proposed statement by the distinguished scientists, calling for the government to "take into account the opinions of scientists and academics when deciding budgets for universities and allocations for research grants". In response, the audience erupted into applause.

Tsunami of protest

In the normally staid world of Japanese science policy, the past week has seen a rash of such statements. On 24 November, presidents from Japan's top nine national and private universities issued a declaration saying the government's policies "are moving in the opposite direction from the rest of the world" and called for funding of young-researcher grants and university-operating costs to be maintained.

We need more money, not less. Ryoji Noyori ,

On 25 November, the heads of nine university-related centres that focus on computer and information technology issued a statement calling for support for the threatened supercomputer project. On the same day, the leaders of 17 Centers of Excellence at the University of Tokyo, along with the university's president, released a statement calling for the maintenance of their budgets. Leaders of Japan's five prestigious World Premier International Research Centers are preparing a similar statement, which they hope to bolster with letters of support from their foreign colleagues.

Shiro Ishii, an emeritus professor of law at the University of Tokyo, who organized the symposium, says that the sudden outcry reminds him of one of the most turbulent periods in Japanese history: the 1960 anpo demonstrations, when groups of faculty and students protested against the US–Japan security treaty (known as anpo in Japanese).

The working groups have broken new ground in Japan by opening up the mechanisms of government for all to see — the hearings are broadcast on the Internet — and by engaging more people in discussions about policy. As of the morning of 26 November, some 14,000 public comments have flooded in to the science and education ministry about the working-group recommendations for science and technology alone (see 'Democratic fallacy').

Standing room only

The Tokyo symposium is by far the biggest outpouring of protest against the recommendations to date. Although it was arranged only the night before and announced yesterday morning, about 1,000 students, journalists and faculty members attended. "We didn't expect so many students," says Ishii. Entering a few minutes late, Nobel physicist Reona (Leo) Esaki asked a student where the lecture hall was. "Second floor, but you'll never get in," the student replied. "They can't start until I do," the Nobelist responded.

Much of the discussion lamented the Japanese public's lack of appreciation for the value of basic science. "People don't realize how the fruits of basic science are all around them, in their [Global Positioning Systems], their vaccines, their mobile phones," says immunologist and Nobel laureate Susumu Tonegawa.

Nobel chemist Ryoji Noyori notes that the funding of graduate students in science is so limited that they often have to find part-time jobs, and that Japan's investment in university education as a percentage of its gross domestic product is lower than that of most other member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. "We need more money, not less," Noyori says.

Esaki, who finally made it to his seat, tried to look on the bright side: "This is an opportunity for us to explain to everybody the significance of science."

Tonegawa told Nature he believes the working groups were "just a show", whose recommendations can be overcome if scientists protest. He now hopes to discuss the cuts with Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. "I think we can have influence," Tonegawa says.