Survey Shows Japanese Academic Funding Uncertainty

Several major publicly held analytical instrument and lab product companies reported on their second quarter conference calls slower sales for the Japanese market. The Japanese fiscal year began in April. According to Japan’s Ministry of Finance, Science funding for fiscal 2016 (April 1, 2016–March 31, 2017) increased 0.6% to ¥1,292.9 billion ($12.0 billion = ¥107.93 = $1).

Among companies with a broader set of technologies and end-users, Bruker reported a double-decline in Japanese revenue in the second quarter. Waters noted that its government and academic sales were impacted by “significant weakness in Japan.” Dedicated life science system and product providers also noted the trend, with Bio-Techne noting “challenging government funding.” Illumina reported only a slight increase in its Japanese revenue.

To investigate the state of government funding for academic R&D in Japan, IBO undertook a survey utilizing BioInformatics’ Science Advisory Board (SAB), an online panel of more than 70,000 scientists worldwide. IBO submitted a questionnaire to SAB members identified as academic or government employees in Japan. The survey was conducted the week of September 12 and received 110 qualified responses.

Respondents were asked about their lab funding environment and opinion on the current government funding situation in Japan. All respondents were life science focused.

Respondents were asked what percentage of their lab’s annual budget is obtained from the Japanese government. As the graph below illustrates, for more than half of surveyed labs, government funding accounts for greater than 61% of their annual budgets.

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For 48% of respondents, their labs receive a single lump funding payment from the Japanese government. However, 46% receive funding in multiple payments.

Respondents were asked from which of five major government agencies their labs receive annual funding: the Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development (AMED); the Japan Science and Technology Agency, part of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science & Technology (MEXT); the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), part of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, which is also part of MEXT. Respondents could select multiple agencies.

As the chart below shows, JSPS was responsible for funding the greatest number of surveyed labs. The JSPS is focused on research in the natural and social sciences as well as the humanities. It supports both basic and applied research, with the mandate to support a “curiosity-driven approach.” In fiscal 2015 (ending March 2016) totaled ¥ 305.3 billion ($2.5 billion = ¥120.1 = $1), with 44% and 32% of its budget going to “Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research” and the “Multi-Year Fund for Grants in Aid,” respectively.

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The JST was the next most highly cited. It funds research in a number of scientific disciplines utilizing a “strategy-driven approach”. In fiscal 2014 (beginning March 2014), its budget totaled ¥135.6 billion, with the majority dedicated to Strategic Basic Research Programs.

Although dedicated to the life sciences, AMED (see IBO 4/15/15) was only cited by 27% of respondents. Launched in April 2015 to consolidate funding provided by other agencies, AMED is dedicated to life science and medical research. The inaugural year budget was ¥140 billion ($1.2 billion = ¥120.1 = $1).

Analysis of the data showed that 50% or more of respondents received 76%–100% of their funding from AMED, JST/MEXT and JSPS, indicating a high level of dependence on Japanese funding agencies for at least half of the respondents. For AMED, JST/MEXT and JSPS, 38%, 42% and 46% of respondents indicated they receive a single lump sum payment.

To ascertain the general government funding environment in Japan, respondents were asked three questions and asked to rate whether they agreed with the statement on a scale from 10 (highly agree) to 0 (highly disagree).

Asked if research funding in Japan is increasingly uncertain, the average of all responses was 4.7. As the graph below shows, only 27% of respondents gave a rating of 7–10. Analyzed by funding agency, AMED-funding researchers felt the most secure, with half giving a rating of 0–3. The same rating range was provided by 40% of JST/MEXT-funded scientists and by 39% of JSPS-funded respondents. Among the three agencies, the JSPS-funded scientists had the highest percentage, 28%, of ratings of 7–10.

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Survey participants were then asked if they were deferring capital equipment purchases to maintain staff and purchase reagents. The average rating was 6.6. A majority of surveyed labs, 60%, gave a rating of 7–10. Those labs receiving funding from JST/MEXT and JSPS indicated the highest agreement, with 58% and 57%, respectively, assigning a rating of 7–10. Nonetheless, 50% of AMED-funded labs provided a similar rating range.

Yet these answers may reflect a general attitude of uncertainty over funding common to labs in general. Asked if they believe their research would be fully funded in 2016, the average rating was 4.6. For this statement, 68% of surveyed labs responded with a rating of 0–6, suggesting a mostly secure outlook. However, this still left close to a third of respondents with ratings of 7–10.

By agency, 38%, 32% and 33% of labs funded by AMED, JST/MEXT and JSPS gave a rating of 7–10. The JSPS-funded labs appeared to be the most confident with 45% providing a rating of 0–3.

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