Mixed Grades for Japan's 5-Year Science Plan

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Dennis Normile
1999-04-26 20:00
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TOKYO--A 1995 law that led to Japan's first ever 5-year plan for science and technology has helped boost spending and the number of scientists being trained, but it has been less successful in ensuring that the increased funding is well spent. That's the preliminary verdict of a committee of the country's top science policy-makers, in an interim report released last week.

The review is likely to be influential, given its source: the Committee on Policy Matters of the Council for Science and Technology, which is chaired by the prime minister and serves as the nation's highest science advisory body. The panel examined such quantitative measures as the level of funding and the number of lab assistants, and took testimony from national laboratory heads, researchers, and business leaders.

Some of the major numerical goals in the basic plan are being met, the committee concluded. Research spending has risen dramatically and is within striking distance of a projected 17 trillion yen ($142 billion) over 5 years (Science, 22 January, p. 478). "We may be close enough to say we've hit the target," says Nobuhiro Muroya, deputy director of the Science and Technology Agency's Planning and Evaluation Division, which helped with the report. The government has already achieved the target of 10,000 postdoctoral positions. University professors have also been given greater freedom to work with companies as a way to convert research results into marketable products.

A big disappointment to many scientists is the committee's finding that procedures established to evaluate programs and institutes have had little impact on research activity. The report notes that while most organizations have gone through the motions, their efforts "are not sufficiently reflected in the allocation of resources or management of facilities." Tomoko Ohta, a population geneticist at the National Institute of Genetics, Mishima, and a member of the committee, believes the problem lies in making the evaluations sufficiently rigorous. "[Japanese] are just not accustomed to making critical comments of others," she says.

The committee hopes to submit a final report in about a year. In the meantime, the council plans to address some issues raised in the review, including the need for a clearer statement of science and technology priorities. One of its first opportunities will come this summer in recommendations to the Ministry of Finance for the fiscal year 2000 budget.

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