TOKYO--Shattering a tradition of restraint in criticizing government policy, 14 current and four former heads of major Japanese laboratories have sent an open letter to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, pleading for greater recognition of the value of basic research and a bigger role for active researchers in shaping the nation's research policies.
The main target of the letter is a report issued on 11 July by the Council for Science and Technology Policy, the nation's highest science advisory body. The 12-page report recommends that the government realign its research priorities "to strengthen industrial competitiveness, invigorate the economy, [and] promote a high quality of life and a vigorous society." In particular, the council said that the budget for the fiscal year beginning next April should lean toward the life sciences, information technology, environmental studies, and nanotechnology.
The lab chiefs responded the same day, complaining to Koizumi, who chairs the council, that the report is a vote for "the short-term goal of strengthening industrial competitiveness." Such a policy would be shortsighted, they argue, because "advanced science and technology must be supported by the cultivation of basic research in a wide range of fields." The missive was drafted by Yoshiki Hotta, director-general of the National Institute of Genetics, based in Mishima; Norio Kaifu, director-general of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan in Mitaka; and Motoya Katsuki, head of the National Institute for Basic Biology in Okazaki.
Koji Omi, a career politician who was recently named to the new position of minister for science and technology policy, says the government agrees with the lab chiefs and doesn't see a gap between their concerns and the council's report. "We recognize the importance of basic science," he said at a press conference, "and those laboratory heads don't have to worry" about budget allocations.
But the lab directors aren't taking anything for granted. Hotta says the group is weighing how to be more active in influencing future policy debates. "This is the first time we have presented a request [to a prime minister], but we may do so regularly from now on," he says.