Japan's Education Ministry Aims High With Budget Request

TOKYO—The Ministry of Education's budget request for the next fiscal year has some welcome news for research, including a new teaching assistant program to employ graduate students, dramatically expanded funding for the space program, and a big increase in support for grants to researchers. But there’s a catch: In recent years the ministry, which funds the bulk of Japan's public research, has been encouraged to aim high, only to have its requests cut down by science advisory bodies, politicians, and the parsimonious Ministry of Finance.

With that caveat in mind, the budget request, released here today, reveals new programs and hints at the ministry's priorities. Among a few completely new schemes, the ministry wants $110 million to hire grad students as teaching assistants, both to support students and ease faculty teaching burdens. Several categories of competitively reviewed grants would grow under the ministry's plan, including a healthy 17% increase, to $2.4 billion, for the small-but-plentiful grants-in-aid for scientific research that support individuals and small groups. The budget request includes a 29% increase, to $98 million, in funding for regenerative medicine, including work on induced pluripotent cells; and a 35% jump, to $2.8 billion, for the space program.

The ministry has not yet totaled up science-related spending, and at best the overall science budget will increase "by a few percent," says Shuichi Sakamoto, director for budget planning for the ministry. Japan's strained finances will limit overall science spending growth, but priorities could shift after national elections on Sunday. By all predictions, the Democratic Party is set to trounce the Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled Japan for all but one of the last 54 years. Policy differences between the two are subtle when it comes to science. Both favor continuing support for research—seen as a key to future economic growth. But the Democratic Party favors restoring funding for universities, which has slipped under the Liberal Democrats, and is calling for more green energy schemes. That just might ensure the ministry gets a requested 75% increase, to $506 million, to expand R&D into making Japan a low-carbon society.

Presuming they win, the Democrats will have until the end of December or so to put their stamp on the budget for fiscal 2010, which starts next April.