Japan's Science Budget Faces Scrutiny—Again

A Japanese cabinet member said today that research institutes will be among the targets of a new effort to identify wasteful governmental spending launched by the ruling party. Yukio Edano, minister of administrative reform, added that he and others in the party are not discounting the importance of science and technology, but they "want to ensure that every single yen of tax money is being spent wisely."

The review, due to start next month, will be the second such exercise by the Democratic Party, which came to power last August after promising to shake up the budget-making process. Last November, a task force recommended freezing spending on a next-generation supercomputer under development and urged trimming funding for major research efforts, such as Japan's ocean drilling program and various grant schemes. After Nobel laureates and prominent scientists denounced the cuts as short-sighted, most of the money was restored in the budget for the fiscal year that starts 1 April.

"It was very painful for us to be the target of criticism by Nobel laureates and the heads of famous universities," Edano said at a press conference in Tokyo today. The Democratic Party's intent was not to undermine the objectives of scientific research, but to find "more effective ways to use tax monies to achieve those goals," he said.

In a second round of hearings, a new task force will take a close look at government-funded organizations. Edano said that many of these agencies are staffed with former bureaucrats and have large personnel and indirect costs. "We are focusing not on scientific research itself but the indirect, wasteful spending that surrounds research activities," he said.

Edano did not specify which institutes will face scrutiny, but did refer to a category of government-funded bodies that includes institutions that conduct research—such as RIKEN, a collection of research centers headquartered in Wako—as well as organizations like the Japan Science and Technology Agency, which administers grants and promotes technology transfers. He also didn't explain if the new review will affect the fiscal 2010 budget or set the stage for funding in the year beginning April 2011.