Japan May Triple Genetics Research

Japan's genetics-related research budgets could triple to $130 million next year if the government approves proposals set to be unveiled this week.

Big increases are being considered at several ministries, following a recommendation last month by the Prime Minister's Council for Science and Technology that the nation spend more on life sciences. But the plans must be approved by the Ministry of Finance this fall, which has been charged with cutting back all government expenditures to reduce Japan's ballooning deficit. Then they must be voted on by the Diet next spring before going into effect 1 April.

The proposed increases are apparently spread across the board, expanding commercially oriented genetics programs as well as human genome science. One big winner appears to be the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, which is planning to expand its rice genome project. The Science and Technology Agency (STA), which would account for nearly half of all government genetics-related research spending ($61 million), hopes to steer $35 million into a new Genetic Frontier Research Center under the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research (RIKEN). The center would fund human genome research, nuclear magnetic resonance studies of protein structure, and a mouse genome project.

While an injection of funds is welcome, the new center could pinch Japan's established human genome project. Yusuke Nakamura, a molecular biologist who heads University of Tokyo's Human Genome Center says he is "quite disappointed" that the government wants to fund a new institute instead of putting more resources into existing efforts. Tokyo's center has a new building filled with new equipment, he says, but "we don't have enough money to run all the sequencers." He blames the duplication on a lack of cooperation among Japan's ministries. University-based research is largely funded by the Ministry of Education, Science, Sports, and Culture (Monbusho).

Yasuhiro Itakura, deputy director of STA's life sciences division, defends the initiative, noting that results from other countries show the benefits of taking multiple approaches. And he pledged "effective cooperation" with Monbusho.