A yen for science
Posted by ampontan on Saturday, March 20, 2010
THE ISSUE of government funding of science is one that often finds those in the big government – small government debate on unaccustomed sides of the fence. When the new left-leaning Japanese government conducted its ballyhooed policy review last fall, it chopped science and technology programs to fund social welfare programs instead. In contrast, some of those who lean libertarian are willing to allow government to fund that research because it can be too expensive for the private sector and require too much time before financial benefits accrue.
Mathematician, author, and Ochanomizu Professor Emeritus Fujiwara Masahiko watched the policy review and objected to the premise of a question asked by one of the government’s representatives. He wrote about it in his column in the 17 December issue of the weekly Shukan Shincho. Here’s part of it in English.
The political show known as the policy review is now concluded. It seems to have been well-received by the public. Perhaps it was diverting to watch the bureaucrats sit in a row and be chopped down to size while parts of the budget were being cut out and discarded.
I was surprised that, during the proceedings, one of the Democratic Party of Japan Diet members questioned—or rather grilled—one of the bureaucrats about the supercomputer program: “Why do we have to aim for number one? Is being number two all that bad?”
Someone with that attitude isn’t qualified to talk about scientific research. There are no scientists in the world who do not strive to be the world’s first in what they do. The very definition of “discovery” means “the first time in the world…” If a scientist is a day late in making the same discovery, his scientific paper will be tossed in the wastebasket as “number two”.
I myself was dumbstruck when I was finally able to prove a theorem after a year’s work, only to find out it had already been proven. It was the same as if I had spent that year doing nothing. Coming in second is the same as coming in last.
It’s the same with technology. Everyone strives to be the world’s first, and then finally achieves the upper rank. If you start with the idea that you’re aiming to be number two, you’re unlikely to make it to 10th. It’s difficult to restore large development projects, such as the rocket that was eliminated entirely, once they’ve been stopped, and doing so requires a considerable amount of time. Japan was prohibited from having an aviation industry for a while after the war, and our aircraft still haven’t caught up to those at the highest level in the world. A rocket has more than just scientific value; we shouldn’t forget that it is also important from the standpoint of security.
The representatives of the various ministries had never been subjected to such vulgarity as that fusillade of aggressive questioning, likely conducted with an eye to the television cameras. It’s a shame they had to ensure such one-sided pressure. What’s more, this review was conducted by people whose focus was limited to cost effectiveness and amakudari (post-retirement government jobs for bureaucrats), so the results were a foregone conclusion.
Considering cost effectiveness in the conduct of scientific research is pointless. There won’t be any cost effectiveness into research into subatomic particles and astrophysics, for example, for the next hundred years…
On the other hand, as we learned last year from the Climategate scandal, scientists are just as ready to prostitute themselves for government largesse as any other segment of society. It’s as important to ferret out and eliminate pointless science projects as it would be for any other government expenditure.
Here’s a brief comment from an unidentified bureaucrat in the Finance Ministry during a roundtable discussion conducted by journalist Yokota Yumiko for the January issue of Will magazine. (Ms. Yokota has developed connections with the Japanese bureaucracy and is often called upon to conduct discussions of this type for weekly and monthly magazines.)
The Chief Cabinet Secretary in the previous administration was Kawamura Takeo. He was influential within the government, and he was also a “rocket zoku”, which meant those programs were nearly untouchable. During the policy review, the GX Rocket project was cancelled….
The zoku is short for zokugi-in, a Diet legislator who has ties with specific ministries and speaks for their interests in government. They might be thought of as legislator-lobbyists for the bureaucracy, rather than for private sector industries.
Mr. Kawamura also served as the Minister of Education, but that picture comes into clearer focus when the department’s full name is cited: The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.
Two additional factors further complicate matters. The first is that the unidentified bureaucrat is from the Finance Ministry, which is notorious for its meddling in Japanese politics. The policy review was supposed to be an exercise in politicians taking control of policy making and funding from the bureaucrats, but it was widely criticized for being controlled by the Finance Ministry itself. Was his observation legitimate, or was it just another volley in a turf war?
The second is that the person who asked the question about settling for number two at the policy review was Ren Ho. Her political experience is limited to less than a single term in the upper house, and she is not particularly known for any expertise about science.
She was chosen to help conduct the policy review because she was a television host before becoming a politician, and a model before that.
How to make a decision when policy issues of this type are ripe for hijacking by the scientists, the bureaucracy, and the politicians? Not during a televised 30-minute Q&A in a Tokyo gym, that’s for sure.
Prof. Fujiwara is the author of The Dignity of a State, which was a best-seller in 2006 and is still given a prominent place in bookstore displays today. His major academic work is on Diophantine equations.
Here’s some additional information on the GX Rocket project.