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Tech advances should be for society's benefit

Japan: The priority has been how research funds should be invested, but the standout characteristic for fiscal 2008’s budget looks to be returning benefits of research back to society.

Since the mid-1990s, when Japan set a goal of becoming a world leader in science and technology, budgets for that purpose have been lavishly appropriated. The priority has been how research funds should be invested, but the standout characteristic for fiscal 2008’s budget looks to be returning benefits of research back to society.

The fiscal 2008 budget for science and technology is about 3.57 trillion yen, an increase of about 60 billion yen, or 1.7 percent, from fiscal 2007. Since the enactment of the Science and Technology Basic Law in 1995, the government has formulated a science and technology basic plan every five years and has appropriated budgets guided by these plans.

Even during times of penny-pinching, budgets for science and technology have been treated preferentially as “investments for tomorrow.” But starting in fiscal 2004, they saw slight year-on-year declines. This means the fiscal 2008 turnaround comes as a boon to researchers and others in the field. But when looking at the content of the appropriations, things are a bit different, because the Cabinet Office in charge of such budgets has changed the way it tabulates such budgets.

Take the appropriations for space development. Conventionally, spending for the development of satellites and rockets was a major chunk of these appropriations. But starting with the fiscal 2008 budget, tabulations also heavily factored in fields of application.

This includes spending on images taken by foreign Earth observation satellites for research purposes. Other cases include spending for research and publication of patented technologies.

“We want to change the public’s concept of science and technology investment,” a Cabinet Office official said.

In the first basic plan for fiscal 1996-2000, the government allotted about 18 trillion yen over a broad scope of research, much of which was denounced as pork-barrel spending. Given this, the second basic plan for fiscal 2001-05 called for intensive investment in specific research fields, creating different levels of investment between favored and unfavored areas. The third five-year plan, starting in fiscal 2006, gives a detailed list of investments in such classifications as “state key technology” and “science and technology with strategic importance,” but still presents a blurry overall impression.

In fiscal 2008, the third year of the third basic plan, the government aims to boost support for science and technology investment by strongly calling for technological developments to yield returns to society.

There has been a trend in research to only announce achievements that are covered in research papers or get patents, a Cabinet Office official pointed out. Masuo Aizawa, a member of the Council for Science and Technology Policy, said: “There’s no science and technology that is just for science and technology’s sake. It benefits society, and there should be a system to help science and technology benefit society.”

To do this, it is necessary to reform approaches toward research.

“Japan’s research and development of technology for robots is splendid, but to apply such technology to household chores and medical treatment, it’s necessary to take a comprehensive approach involving the cooperation of various fields,” one expert said. This means it is essential to establish a flexible system free of the shackles of organizational interests and to also fund it well.

As a first step in that direction, the government has put forth a policy of financially supporting a project by Kyoto University Prof. Shinya Yamanaka, who announced in December that his team had successfully produced induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. His request for full support was given an immediate response.

A new strategy of using science and technology for diplomacy also has emerged. Starting in fiscal 2008, the Foreign Ministry and the Education, Science and Technology Ministry will provide cooperation in science and technology to developing countries by using official development assistance and other means. This is a deliberate departure from the image of ODA being mostly for constructing roads and bridges.

While it may appear otherwise, the government is having trouble landing all of the 24 trillion yen targeted in the whole of the third basic plan.

There are a host of problems that cannot be resolved by the aforementioned measures. For example, budget allocations to cover state universities’ fundamental expenses for education and research have been decreasing annually. Such budgets for fiscal 2008 are set to be cut by about 23 billion yen, or 1.9 percent, from the previous fiscal year. Another problem is the difficulty young researchers are having landing jobs after finishing doctorate courses.

Work on the fourth basic plan will begin in fiscal 2008. The plan must be studied steadily from the viewpoint of future benefits to society while also conducting fact-finding surveys and collecting opinions from researchers.