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Sparring Intensifies Over Japan's Science Budget

TOKYO—The struggle for public and political support between Japan's scientific community and a budget-cutting task force is escalating.

Last week, the Government Revitalization Unit concluded its scheduled 9-day-long hearings, in which three working groups reviewed each of several hundred line items in ministry budget requests for the year starting next April before voting to recommend approval, cancellation, or a reduction in funding. On 25 November, one of the working groups proposed trimming by an unspecified amount operating funds for major scientific facilities, including the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan's Subaru telescope in Hawaii, the High Energy Accelerator Research Organization's particle accelerator in Tsukuba, and the University of Tokyo's neutrino observatory Super-Kamiokande in Gifu Prefecture, all of which are credited with breakthrough results.

Scientists, meanwhile, stepped up efforts to defend their budgets. In a hastily scheduled symposium at the University of Tokyo on 25 November, four Nobel laureates and one winner of the Fields Medal (considered mathematicians' Nobel) argued against any cuts to the science budget, with roaring support from a partisan crowd of students and researchers.

The next day, representatives of the group met Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and presented a statement signed by eight Japanese Nobel laureates warning that, "Weakening science and technology will lead to the decline of our resource-poor country." The statement went on to say that Japan has "a big responsibility" to use its scientific capabilities to help solve global problems such as climate change and to promote sustainable development, world peace, and prosperity.

There was no indication of how Hatoyama took the advice. But the Nobel laureates "really don't get the point,” Yoshihiro Katayama, a law professor at Keio University in Tokyo and a member of the revitalization task force, said during a Thursday press briefing. He said the objective is to prune wasteful bureaucratic inefficiencies that have accumulated around worthy science projects. Instead of looking for flab in their budgets, the laureates “are simply repeating 'This is important, this is what Japan needs for the future,' " Katayama said.

But there were also indications that the administration is feeling some heat. During a TV appearance on 22 November, Deputy Prime Minister Naoto Kan said the task force's recommendation to freeze spending on a $1.3 billion next-generation supercomputer would be reviewed. That will have to be quick: The administration has announced it intends to finalize the budget by 30 December.