Deficit Plan Squeezes Japan's Big Science

TOKYO--A pledge to reduce Japan's serious budget deficit could put the hurt on several big-science projects, including the $10 billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), as well as delay an ambitious plan to boost R&D spending in the coming decade. But the outlook for science, described in a new report from a high-level government advisory body, is much better than that for most other areas of government spending. "Relatively, science is doing well," says an official with the Science and Technology Agency.

As a first step toward paring the budget deficit, the Fiscal Structure Reform Council, an ad hoc committee chaired by Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, supports reducing by 0.5% next year's so-called ordinary budget, which accounts for the major share of government spending. The report, already endorsed by the Cabinet, will be incorporated into a fiscal reform law that is expected to be approved by the Diet (parliament) with few, if any, changes.

Because the report lacks detail, however, the real battle over research spending will take place during this fall's budget negotiations with the Ministry of Finance. But some belt tightening appears inevitable. The council recommended flexibility in carrying out the goals of a 5-year, 17-trillion-yen ($136 billion) plan that would add about 50% to current public spending levels. This suggestion could extend the timetable by at least a few years.

The report also urges the delay of "big-science projects" in atomic energy, fusion, and space. It specifically mentions delaying until 2000 any decision to move ahead on ITER, including a Japanese bid to host the reactor. Proponents had hoped that a site would be chosen and construction would be under way by the end of the decade. A harsher fate may await the Monju experimental fast breeder reactor, which has been plagued by leaks of radioactive material and complaints of lax management. The council's report calls for the plan "to be thoroughly rethought," which many scientists interpret as the first step toward cancellation.

The report leaves a question mark hanging over other big projects. One is the Japan Hadron Project, a $700 million accelerator that would produce K mesons for use in studying basic nuclear physics. After a decade of planning, officials at the High-Energy Accelerator Research Organization (KEK), the former National Laboratory for High-Energy Physics, still hope to get initial construction funding next year. Hirotaka Sugawara, director-general of KEK, says that a delay "would be a serious blow to basic science."

Posted in Policy, Asia