Japan's Political Turmoil Threatens University Funding and Delays New Energy Policy

Nuclear fallout. Funding for experiments at Japan's Monju breeder reactor has been held up pending the outcome of political infighting over the future of the nation's nuclear power program.

Nife/Wikimedia Commons

Political squabbles are playing havoc with Japan's scientific efforts. The nation's universities could face a cash flow crisis later this fall if the legislature can't agree on a deficit spending bill, which would force the government to suspend paying operating grants. Infighting over the future of nuclear power in Japan is being blamed for a sudden delay in announcing a new energy policy that was due today. And last Friday, the Ministry of Education requested a 6.7% increase, to $14.7 billion, in science-related funding for the fiscal year beginning next April. But those numbers could change as a result of an election that is expected within the next couple of months. The vote is likely to bring in a different ruling party—and a corresponding change in funding priorities before Japan's budget is finalized at the end of the year.

The immediate problem for universities is a possible disruption in the flow of money. The opposition Liberal Democratic Party has been holding up passage of legislation needed for deficit spending. The government announced on Friday that without enabling legislation, payments of grants to universities, among other entities, could be suspended by November. Salaries and expenditures "would be affected in no small measure," the University of Tokyo finance department wrote in a statement to ScienceInsider. The department is taking steps to avoid a funding shortfall.

As part of a post-Fukushima disaster energy policy review, the currently ruling Democratic Party of Japan last week proposed phasing out nuclear power by the 2030s. However, nuclear power advocates forced a delay in finalizing a government position, according to a report from Kyodo News. It is now not clear when a new energy policy will be released.

The lack of a clear energy policy has left a cloud of uncertainty over some parts of the government's budget. For example, the education ministry on Friday asked for just enough money, $369 million, to continue to maintain the Monju experimental fast breeder reactor and related nuclear fuel cycle technologies. But the request didn't include funds for experiments, with the ministry saying it was awaiting the outcome of the energy policy review.

All requested budgets face trimming to get within overall fiscal targets. The education ministry's proposed science-related spending reflects the ruling party's emphasis on "green innovation" and health and welfare, with increased support for work on renewable energy and stem cell research. But if, as expected, the Liberal Democrats take power before the budget is finalized, they are likely to put their own stamp on spending priorities.