Friday, November 27, 2009

Those Japanese budget cuts, in full, in brief

There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth to be heard in Japanese scientific circles recently. News reports were talking of 50% cuts here, 20% there, a complete mothballing of major projects like the new petaflop supercomputer. None of this directly affected us, although cuts all around would probably lead to some loss from our institute as the budgets of different departments seem highly fluid. And though we may make some use of the new computer, it's not central to any of our plans. But still, it was rather shocking news.

But it turns out that it's just hot air. What the Govt did was set up some "Peoples' Panels" to give advice on where to cut the budget. This nakedly populist move is aimed at cutting money to pay for things like promise to remove or reduce the road tolls (so much for their green credentials, but one can hardly expect a politician to put principles above popularity). The panels are made up of non-specialists and public representatives, and their suggestions are not based on any detailed evaluation of value for money but are just arbitrary numbers plucked out of thin air based on their prejudices after a brief meeting.

Faced with the predictable howls of outrage from not only the scientists but also the ministries responsible for funding the research, the deputy PM has already distanced himself from the recommendations and the PM also seems keen to emphasise that the actual decisions will be made by the Govt. So I expect the gravy train of Japanese science has some way to go before it hits the buffers.

It's a shame they've made such a cack-handed effort, as there is massive waste in the Japanese system that could easily be addressed. As a fairly typical example, I was suddenly told to spend $15,000 at short notice a couple of months ago, for fear that we would otherwise have to hand it back and lose face in the process. So I bought some computers and software for colleagues who didn't really need it. There is some sort of cap on salaries, but every year we struggle to waste all the money we are given for equipment and travel. And if larger savings were required there are research groups who basically do nothing for years on end, like the 100-person-year project that has cost tens of millions of dollars and generated about 10 minor publications (and nothing else). Not that the number of papers is a perfect measure of output, but if a whole group isn't writing anything at all, it might as well not exist as far as the rest of the world is concerned. The project leader is influential, however, so there is no chance of anyone asking whether this is a sensible way of spending money...

On related news, jules learnt about the annual performance evaluation system for staff yesterday. Apparently there has been one for years, only no-one bothered to tell us :-)


William M. Connolley said...

"the 100-person-year project that has cost tens of millions of dollars and generated about 1o minor publications (and nothing else)" - sounds like a scandal to me. Have you tried posted the relevant text on a server in Russia and mailed that Paul Hudson from the beeb?

Alastair said...


That doesn't seem like a good idea to me. The Japanese would lose face and James would lose his job!

James Annan said...

Mailed PH a month ago but I'm waiting for another few days before stealing the rest of the emails :-)

No, really, it would be scandalous if after so many years someone was to decide that performance in the job actually matters.

EliRabett said...

There is little new under the sun. Over thirty years ago, Eli was a postdoc in Germany. There was an election in the middle of the fiscal year, and the party in power cut the university research budget in half. Of course, we had already spent half.

There was much debate and endless meetings about whether the professors had to go out on the street to shake the cup for science, or it was enough to send the staff and students.

So the election came and went, and the party in power remained the party in power, but with a bigger majority, so in celebration they doubled the budget from where it was before they cut it in half.

On the other hand, panic is sometimes required, and in that case women and children, or what passes for them, get thrown overboard first