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Japanese Science Bureaucracy Tries to Slim Down

TOKYO--Two fierce rivals in the world of Japanese science funding, the Science and Technology Agency (STA) and the Ministry of Education, Science, Sports, and Culture (Monbusho), may have to learn to get along. The Administrative Reform Council, an ad hoc committee chaired by Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto that is charged with recommending ways to streamline the entire Japanese government, last week decided to recommend that the two be merged into one new Ministry of Science, Technology, and Education.

Details still need to be worked out, and the legislature will not take up the issue until early next year. But observers say it will be a challenge to blend the operating styles of the two agencies, which now have very different cultures. Monbusho, the primary source of support for university-based research, typically disburses relatively small amounts to individual researchers. STA typically concentrates its resources in large-scale efforts in select applied fields--fusion research, for example, and commercial space development.

Makoto Fujiwara, head of Monbusho's reform office, says this means that even if the agencies merge at the governmental level, affiliated research institutes may well remain separate. For example, Monbusho's Institute of Space and Astronautical Science focuses on space science, while STA's National Space Development Agency emphasizes commercial applications. Fujiwara says such institutes "are not likely to soon be merged into one."

Most scientists are reserving judgment on the merger, for now. "Rather than the overall framework, I think what's important is how the details are worked out," says Wataru Mori, a pathologist who is a former president of the University of Tokyo and a member of Japan's Council for Science and Technology. And Nobuaki Kawakami, who heads STA's administrative reform office, says the decision to streamline the scientific agencies does not mean the government intends to reduce support for research. "The members [of the reform council] are very aware of the importance of scientific research for Japan's future," he says.