Japan's Scientists Fight Proposed Budget Cuts

TOKYO—Nothing rouses a research community like a threat to its funding, as could be seen this week here in Japan after a task force recommended deep cuts in the Ministry of Education's budget for fiscal year 2010. Grass-roots efforts have sprung up to defend individual projects, while community leaders are asserting the importance of research to Japan's future.

The Government Revitalization Unit was set up by the newly elected Democratic Party to identify wasteful spending in the budget requests for the year beginning next April so that money can be steered toward social programs. Three working groups are in the midst of a 9-day review, with just an hour or so allowed for discussion of each line item. One of the three working groups reviewed 40 projects and spending categories in the education ministry's budget during hearings on 13 and 17 November. Few were spared. Based on just a partial list of the projects carried in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, the task force recommended cuts running up to $3 billion, equivalent to more than 10% of the education ministry's research-related spending this year.

But backers of targeted projects are fighting back.

Arguing against the task force's recommended freeze on spending on the $1.3 billion Next-Generation Supercomputer, two dozen leading computer scientists issued a statement calling the project "of life and death significance to the future of Japan as a nation built on science and technology." Akira Ukawa, a vice president of the University of Tsukuba and the group's representative, says similar statements from user groups are on the way. Others are organizing e-mail campaigns to support various grant programs dissed by the task force. Several scientific organizations organized a joint press conference on 19 November to protest the method and the outcome of the review. Hitoshi Murayama, a University of California, Berkeley, physicist, started an international e-mail campaign for the World Premier International Research Center Initiative, facing a possible 50% funding cut, that supports the Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe at the University of Tokyo, which he directs. He says fellow Berkeley prof and physics Nobel laureate George Smoot has promised to personally write to Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.

Agitation extends to the eight members representing academia and industry on the Council for Science and Technology Policy, who ignored the seven politicians on the body in issuing a statement defending the requested levels of spending as being of "conclusive significance" for the nation's long-term economic growth, the health and welfare of its citizens, and for its contributions to human knowledge. In a dig at the politicians and private sector advisers who make up the task force's working group, the statement says, "There should be sufficient concern for the opinions of experts when composing the budget for science and technology."

Tasuku Honjo, a molecular geneticist at Kyoto University and a member of the council—the nation's highest science advisory body—is encouraged by the scientific uprising. "It's a good thing the scientific community is aware of what's going on and expressing its opinion," he says. He says he is "not so pessimistic" about the pressure having results before the budget is finalized at the end of December.