TOKYO—Japanese scientists are proving a bit skeptical about the administration's new strategy for economic growth, which includes an emphasis on applied biomedical research. Even before it was officially released on 12 June, several life science-related academic societies raised questions about plans for a Japanese version of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) that would "strongly support the commercialization of innovative medical technologies."
In a joint 11 June statement (in Japanese here), the heads of more than 50 life science-related academic societies expressed interest in the concept of an NIH-like funding entity positioned over and above Japan's existing ministries; but they also voiced concerns that the details have not been thought through. The statement specifically makes three demands: that the government preserve the bottom-up approach of promoting basic research under which individual researchers pursue their interests; that it support the development of the next generation of researchers; and that it provide adequate funding to foster true innovation. Other societies issued similar statements.
At a press conference today, Akira Amari, minister for economic revitalization, sought to reassure the scientific community. "I would like to stress that we have no intention to try to tie down the people who are involved in very fundamental research," he said. He acknowledged that many academic researchers don't know if or when something they are working on will eventually lead to practical application. Basic, curiosity-driven research "is something that is very important to maintain," he said.
But he added that to establish the foundation for long-term economic growth, the administration feels that the government should show leadership in exploring "how to tie basic research to the practical research of industry." He said he has been told by scientists that they often reach a point where something that they are working on "is beginning to show some signs of eventually having some kind of possible commercial application," but are unsure of how to take their research in that direction. "We need to try to help these people," he said. One possibility is to get scientists with private-sector experience involved in academic settings. "It is very important to have someone in [a research] group who can look at the industrialization or commercialization aspects and provide some direction to the research," he explained.
Amari said that a key element of the research aspects of the Growth Strategy will be creating an office within the Japanese Cabinet Secretariat with the power and budget to oversee research efforts that are now scattered among the various ministries. They expect to get this office running in the fiscal year beginning next April.