14 June 2010

Japan's elite, well-funded advanced research institutes forced into austerity

A Nature article reports that the research institutes in Japan were in the 'hot seat' of government oversight and being asked to justify their huge costs. Now that the former finance minister has become the new prime minister, the pressure on these hugely expensive institutions will most likely increase. This is especially problematic for the fledgling Okinawa Institue of Science and Technology (OIST), which isn't yet a a fully functioning institution. When it was first conceived a decade ago it was probably seen as an effective way to finish off regional development because Okinawa is considered an economically backward part of Japan (regardless of what Okinawans think).

The national government had wanted to make the OIST a showpiece for its efforts to develop Okinawa beyond tourism and military installations; however, the location of OIST is too remote for an international research institute (adding to its costs for bringing researchers to Okinawa and subsidizing them to travel overseas from such a remote place). Okinawa and its people would have been much better served with institutes aimed at integrating Okinawa with its historical economic partners (Taiwan, S. Korea, and China) and providing more educational and training opportunities for the youth of that entire region. Moreover, Okinawa's future is being frustrated by the continued obtrusive presence of the American military, which is actually expanding its activities under the guise of reform.     

See the article at the link below for its entirety.


Japan's research institutions in the hot seat

Government oversight committee urges scientists to make savings.

excerpt 1:

In four days of hearings that began on 23 April, some of Japan's most prominent research institutions and funding agencies came under fire from government-appointed budget watchdogs. But the harsh words and suggested cuts were aimed mostly at administrative operations....    

In the first round of hearings last November, the major cuts recommended at facilities such as the SPring-8 synchrotron in Harima and a planned supercomputer caused a storm of protest among researchers, but the budgets that incorporated the recommendations, which went into effect on 1 April, reflected only modest decreases.

excerpt 2:

The audits started last Friday, with geneticist Sydney Brenner stroking his beard as he sat opposite Renho, the parliamentary representative of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, who is known by her first name only. With her sharp haircut and pointed comments, she has become the symbol of the working groups.

Through an interpreter, Brenner described his vision for the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST), of which he is president. He spoke only a few sentences before being cut off. Renho said: "We all agree that science and technology is a fantastic thing. But we are here to discuss whether taxpayer's money is being wisely spent, for example, with regard to your board of governors."

The OIST's board of governors is composed of ten scientists, including five Nobel laureates. They receive an annual US$10,000 honorarium: $5,000 for each of the biannual meetings they attend (to which they fly first class). Overall, the OIST spends between \30 million to \36 million (US$320,000?$384,000) per year to get feedback from these luminaries. The working groups called for a reduction in the costs and a "strengthening of governance".

end of excerpts

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