Japan's Science Budget Not as Bad as Feared

Japan's researchers let loose a sigh of relief on 25 December when the new administration's first budget revealed only minor changes in science and technology priorities. Overall spending on S&T won't be known for some time. But "the overall total has probably not decreased," says Koichi Kitazawa, president of the Japan Science and Technology Agency, which administers government grants and promotes technology transfers. He adds that new funding for emerging fields probably makes up for those areas being cut.

The winners, given in a Japanese summary of major budget items by the Ministry of Education, include a near tripling of funding, to $107 million, for several new and expanded "green initiatives" intended to make Japan a low-carbon society and grants for basic research by academics, up 1.7% to $3 billion.

One of the biggest losers is the $1.3 billion, 7-year Next-Generation Supercomputer project.

The previous administration had earmarked $290 million for the effort; the new government will provide $230 million. "It will delay development and affect users," says Tadashi Watanabe, who heads the project for RIKEN, a network of national labs headquartered near Tokyo. It is due to be completed in 2012. The Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC) is facing a 6% cut in its roughly $400 million annual budget. Asahiko Taira, a JAMSTEC executive director, says that with their high fixed costs, "reductions will come out of pure research-related money," though they will try to minimize the impact on the drill ship Chikyu, Japan's contribution to the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program. The SPring-8 synchrotron, near Kobe, will have to get by on 2% less than this year, or about $93 million. "It's not a big cut, but it will have some effect," says Koki Sorimachi, head of planning for the RIKEN Harima Institute, which operates SPring-8.

At one point, scientists feared much worse. When the Democratic Party took power last August it announced it would rewrite the rules for preparing budgets, starting with the budget for fiscal 2010 proposed by the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party just 2 days before its historic electoral defeat. In November, a task force set up to identify fat in the budget recommended freezing spending on the supercomputer pending a review, shrinking JAMSTEC's budget 10% to 20%, and slashing funding for SPring-8 by one- to two-thirds. The ensuing storm of protests from scientists—including most of Japan's living Nobel laureates—got most of the funding restored. But scientists are taking it as a wake-up call and pondering strategies for future budgets. "If scientists can't explain their work to policymakers, they are going to see their budgets go down," warns Kitazawa.

The cabinet approved the budget on 25 December and it will go to the legislature in January, where few changes are expected. It takes effect on 1 April.