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The government will launch a five-year science and technology development plan with the start of fiscal 2006 in April. The plan is based on the “third basic plan for science and technology” that the General Council on Science and Technology submitted to the government late last year spelling out the nation’s science and technology policy. The target amount of investment — which has been a subject of controversy given the huge budget deficit — is set at 25 trillion yen.

Thus Japan will continue to spend a large amount of money on research and development to build a “nation strong in science and technology.” For many years Japan’s chief slogan for science and technology policy was: “Catch up and overtake.” The goal, of course, was to occupy a prominent place in the club of technologically advanced nations. Now Japan finds itself increasingly in a position where it must play the role of an innovator, not an imitator, in a variety of fields.

That will require promoting investment in fields where Japan is strong and reducing the number of areas where it is weak. The difficult question is how to set the right priorities. It is hoped that funding is invested wisely in ways that make the best use of scientific talent and improve the quality of research and development.

The basic plan for science and technology is prepared every five years by the General Council on Science and Technology under the Science and Technology Basic Law. The first plan began in 1996 with the aim of raising the level of research spending, which compared unfavorably to that in the United States and leading European nations.

The spending target for the first five years was 17 trillion yen. The figure was raised to 24 trillion yen for the next five years, with emphasis placed on four “priority areas” — life sciences, information and communications, the environment, and nanotechnology and related materials. Moreover, the second five-year plan called for producing as many as 30 Japanese Nobel laureates in science in 50 years.

The third plan holds two basic positions: First, science and technology should be promoted with the public’s support and its achievements should be plowed back into society; second, spending priority should be assigned to the development of human resources and the creation of a more competitive research environment. On that basis, the plan lays out six policy goals, including accumulating and creating diverse areas of knowledge and expertise capable of opening up new frontiers, and achieving sustainable development through the establishment of a compatible relationship between the environment and the economy.

Investment in the four priority areas will continue under the new five-year plan. At the same time, science and technology will be promoted under a set of strategic priorities. By March, “achievements” to be plowed back into society and put to use by people will be defined in specific areas such as the environment and disaster preparedness.

The Finance Ministry, concerned about the budget crisis, opposed setting a higher spending target for the third plan, while the research and business communities maintained that the new plan should specify an overall amount. Their argument has carried the day.

A third plan devoid of a spending target would have created the impression that the government was retreating on the science and technology front. Now that a larger sum has been specified, the new plan conveys the message that Japan is committed to investing actively in science and technology.

Of course, wasteful spending must be avoided. The general council needs to strengthen guidance and coordination to ensure that research money is spent effectively. It also needs to create conditions that inspire researchers to be productive.

Scientists in Japan are not respected as much as they should be. While it is recognized in principle that the future of science rests on the development of human resources, in reality this is not always the case, as evidenced by the fact that young people increasingly appear to be losing interest in science. Teachers must strive to make the study of science and math more interesting for children.

It is also important to increase the number of female researchers as Japanese women are greatly underrepresented in the field of science. According to the third plan, 25 percent of newly hired researchers will be women.

Investment in science and technology fuels future growth and development. The challenge for Japan is to become a leader in science and technology by offering a broad range of opportunities for aspiring researchers.

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