ARE GOVERNMENT’S SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH GRANTS DISTRIBUTED PROPERLY?
Jiro Yamaguchi, a left-leaning professor of political science at Tokyo’s Hosei University, reportedly said during a rally in 2015 held to protest proposed security legislation: “I want to say this to (Prime Minister Shinzo) Abe—You are not human! We will beat you up and cut you to pieces.”
Yamaguchi’s name came up last Friday during my regular “Genron” Internet television show as Ms. Mio Sugita, a lower house lawmaker who was my guest, questioned if the government’s scientific research grants are distributed fairly. These grants are offered through the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS)—an independent administrative institution under the auspices of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, and Science and Technology. Sugita noted that so far Yamaguchi is known to have received a total close to \600 million (US$5.7 million) in grants over the last 16 years, including:
– \445.580 million (US$4.2 million) for a 2002-2006 research project
titled “Comparative Study of Changes in Governance in the Age of Globalization”;
– \98.54 million (US$930,000) for a 2007-2011 study: “A Comprehensive Examination of the Democratic Principles and Policies of Civil Society”; and,
– \44.98 million (US$429,000) for a 2012-2017 study: “A Comparative Study of Regime Changes and The Possibilities of Democratic Governance.”
Professor Tadashi Narabayashi, a leading expert on nuclear engineering who serves
as a specially appointed professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, explained:
“Starting with a grant from the Showa Emperor in 1932, the official scientific research grants have been distributed through JSPS and the Ministry of Education for almost 80 years. The total budget for JSPS’s 2017 scientific research funding, to which scholars and researchers at colleges and universities across Japan apply, stood at \267.7 billion (US$2.53 billion).”
On its website, JSPS explains that 99.8% of its total budget is covered by government subsidies. In other words, our tax money is contributing significantly to support a government’s scientific research grant program originally founded on a cash gift from Emperor Showa.
Professor Narabayashi himself has been a recipient of research grants for three different studies, including a three-year study into AgX, an iodine absorbent for vent-type filters used at nuclear power plants. Because of the large number of applications, his chances of winning were 5 percent. He had this to say about the project:
“This research called for large and expensive instruments, but since only \20 million (US$188,700) was granted for three years, I didn’t have the luxury of buying them. So I asked my students to help by hand-making the required equipment pro bono. I also needed some 40 scholars and experts to help me conduct the experiments, all of whom readily joined in to cover their transportation and meals out of their own pockets.”
Why Hundreds of Millions of Yen for Humanities Research?
Narabayashi’s research culminated in the development of the world’s first vent-type filters to be used at nuclear power stations. Designed to eliminate radioactive substances, such as cesium, as well as organic iodine, the merits of the vent filters have since been globally recognized. With these filters installed, nuclear power stations anywhere in the world are said to need to be less concerned about the spread of thyroid cancer, as the filters will remove cesium and organic iodine should there be an explosion.
Narabayashi had this to say about the nearly \600 million grants Yamaguchi managed to draw for his humanities research:
“Scientific research is costly, as it calls for experimental apparatus and cutting-edge measuring instruments, such as those my vent filter research required. However, with humanities research I frankly wonder why grants of several hundred millions of yen are required. And I am utterly surprised that such huge grants have actually been approved.
“Research grants are extremely important to scholars and researchers alike. For that matter, I believe it is pertinent to strictly evaluate what sort of examination each application has gone through and what specifically has been the fruit of the research.”
The government’s “scientific research grants” have been extended to many worthwhile research projects, but there appear quite a number of cases that make one question their usefulness. Pointed out Ms. Sugita:
“Let me cite one such example—the grants extended to help a group of researchers opposed to American military bases in Okinawa Prefecture and in favor of the independence of the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa). A total of \4.42 million (US$41,000) was granted Professor Yasukatsu Matsushima of Ryukoku University for his research titled ‘A Comprehensive Study on the Development of Okinawa Prefecture and Its Indigenous Growth’ conducted 2011-2015. A number of magazine articles are listed by Matsushima as the fruit of his research.”
Notable among these articles are: “The Peace and Independence of the Ryukyus”; “Why the Ryukyus Must Be Independent: A Probe into A New Relationship between the Ryukyus and Japan”; and “Are the Senkaku Islands ‘Indigenous Japanese Territory’?” His books include The Case for Independence: A Manifesto for the Ryukyuans and The Road To Independence: Ryukyuan Nationalism Combating Colonialism.
The Case for Independence maintains that the postwar bureaucratic battles between the local government and the central government are no longer relevant, and that the challenge for the Ryukyuans has shifted from fighting for the elimination of Japanese discrimination to establishing a new relationship with Japan, with Okinawa’s independence as the goal.
In his books and magazine articles, Matsushima argues that Okinawa and Japan are two entirely separate nations populated by two entirely separate races. In point of fact, he founded The Association of Comprehensive Studies for Independence of the Lew Chewans (the Romanization used in the 19th century for the Ryukyuans) in 2013 in tandem with two fellow professors at Okinawa International University—Masaki Tomochi and Kazuhiko Momohara. Their aim: “the Ryukyus complete independence from Japan.”
Needed: Strict and Fair Examination of Applications
Sugita pointed out:
“The title of Matsushima’s research—“A comprehensive Study on the Development of Okinawa Prefecture and Its Indigenous Growth”—is ambiguous, but one would assume that it would have something to do with regional development in Okinawa. This was not the case. As a matter of fact, he questioned if the Senkaku Islands are truly part of Japan in one article while calling for Okinawa’s independence in another. On top of that, Matsushima and his colleagues called a news conference at the United Nations in New York in September 2015 to declare Okinawa’s independence.
A photograph of the news conference shows Matsushima and his three colleagues meeting the press, with him holding a book he had authored and the trio a copy of the liberal daily Ryukyu Shimpo. Behind them hangs a signboard written in Chinese characters that reads: “The Association of Comprehensive Studies for Independence of the Lew Chewans.” Observed Sugita:
“From the Chinese characters on the signboard, the news conference was clearly held with China in mind. During a symposium at the United Nations building preceding it, the managing editor of the Ryukyu Shimpo declared that Okinawa is ‘neither an American nor a Japanese territory.’”
Needless to say, research projects requiring subsidies should represent a variety of fields and types. And yet, we must bear strictly in mind that the government’s “scientific research grants” are supported by our tax money. Therefore, it is only natural that they be distributed on the basis of fair rules. The examples of dubious research projects I have cited here would hardly win the tax-payers’ consent by any stretch of the imagination.
As Narabayashi pointed out, research grants are a matter of particular significance to scholars and researchers at colleges and universities. Their applications must therefore undergo particularly intense scrutiny. A recent incident at Kyoto University’s Center for iPS Cell Research and Application headed by Nobel laureate Dr. Shinya Yamanaka is a case in point. One of the center’s young scientists was found guilty of falsifying data. As the scientist had received a JSPS grant amounting to \800,000 (US$7,500), his misconduct led to the question of whether the money should be returned to the JSPS, or Yamanaka resign to assume responsibility.
As it turned out, Yamanaka was spared from resigning in view of his worldwide fame and respect for his achievements as a medical doctor. But how the scientist dispensed the grant was examined all the more strictly despite the relative smallness of the sum. By comparison, one wonders to what extent and how strictly the grants provided to the likes of Yamaguchi and Matsushima have been reviewed. As a matter of fact, there have been no small number of cases of questionable grant-giving elsewhere as well. Which makes me wonder if the government’s ”scientific research grants” are shrouded in even more darkness than we imagine.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 801 in the May 3-10 Combined Issue of The Weekly Shincho)