Japan’s government is facing serious fiscal challenges, but its main science ministry appears hopeful that the nation is ready to once again back basic research in a big way. The Ministry of Education (MEXT) on 31 August announced an ambitious budget request that would allow Japan to compete for the world’s fastest supercomputer, build a replacement x-ray space observatory, and push ahead with a massive new particle detector.
MEXT’s proposal represents a 21% increase for its fiscal 2019 budget, to 1.17 trillion yen ($10.54 billion). That target, however, is certain to be scaled back during reviews by the Council for Science, Technology and Innovation, the country’s top science advisory panel, and negotiations with the Cabinet office and finance ministry. The talks may be particularly tough as the Cabinet set in July a target of reducing discretionary spending by 10%.
That austerity push comes as Japan’s population shrinks and ages, leading to declining tax revenues even while spending on social programs increases. Overall, Japan’s economic growth has been lackluster since the early 1990s. Yet the government has maintained spending on science and technology in the belief that the investment would benefit the economy. And even after being essentially flat for a decade, spending on R&D turned up this year—but not as much as MEXT is shooting for in next year’s budget.
Based on its proposal, MEXT’s funding for research grants to academic groups and individuals would rise 8% to 247 billion yen. Reflecting pressure to make university research payoff economically, the budget includes 2.4 billion yen to support turning academic biomedical findings into marketable pharmaceuticals.
Big-ticket items are slated to get the most generous increases. Funding for Japan’s next-generation supercomputer, the Post-K Computer, would more than triple to 21 billion yen as the project moves from the design phase to hardware production and application refinement. The system will be built at the Riken Advanced Institute for Computational Science in Kobe and should become available to users in 2021. Post K will be the successor to Japan’s K Computer, which was the world's fastest in 2011 and 2012. The Post K developers, Riken and Fujitsu, are aiming for a speed in the exascale range, or a billion billion floating point operations a second. They are in the thick of a race with China and the United States to deploy exascale computers.
MEXT is seeking to boost support for space-related R&D as well, with 28% increase in funding to 199 billion yen. The sum covers new rocket and aircraft development but also includes 3.9 billion yen in support for work on the X-Ray Imaging and Spectroscopy Mission that partly replaces the ASTRO-H satellite that broke apart in space shortly after its February 2016 launch. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's Institute of Space and Astronautical Science plans to launch the new spacecraft in 2021. The requested budget also provides 2 billion yen in development funding for a mission that will attempt to return to Earth samples from the martian moon Phobos. Target launch is 2024.
In a budget category covering Japan's participation in large international projects, the ministry is seeking 43 billion yen to support the nation's contribution to the Thirty Meter Telescope proposed for Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Additional funding in that category will also cover a feasibility study for the proposed Hyper-Kamiokande detector, a giant water-filled tank lined with sensors that would pick up the flashes generated when neutrinos collide with electrons or nuclei of water molecules. Observations of the ghostly particles using the original Kamiokande detector and its successor, Super-Kamiokande, snared two physics Nobel Prizes for Japanese scientists. At 60 meters tall and 74 meters in diameter, Hyper-Kamiokande will hold 10 times as much ultrapure water as its predecessor and gather data that much faster. It would study the possible differences between neutrinos and antineutrinos and collect neutrinos from the sun and stars and supernova explosions for clues to understanding their driving mechanisms. Researchers from 75 institutes in 15 countries have participated in design work.
"The coming year is critical for this project," says Masato Shiozawa, a neutrino physicist at the University of Tokyo's Institute for Cosmic Ray Research, which is leading the project. He explains that if all goes well with the feasibility study, Hyper-Kamiokande could get construction funding starting in 2020. Japan is expected to shoulder $700 million of the construction cost, with another $100 million coming from the international partners, Shiozawa says. Hyper-Kamiokande could begin operations as soon as 2027.
Other project managers and policymakers declined to comment on the budget because it is still a request that faces certain scrutiny and squeezing. For the current year, government-wide science spending rose only 7%. The budget must be finalized and submitted to the legislature in time to take effect with the start of the fiscal year in April.