Home Management Promoting Research Excellence : New Approaches to Funding.
Japan’s funding system has undergone major changes over the past decade: the full- scale introduction of proposal-based competitive research funding programmes since the mid-1990s; the switch to independent administrative institution status of many public research institutions as part of the administrative reform of 2001; the creation of a core funding system through incorporation of national universities in 2004; and the setting up and expansion of the system of competitive research funding around the turn of the century. The funding system has been moving towards more transparency in the flow and use of public funds for research by strengthening research under such programmes and increasing the independence of institutions. The funding system of the COEs was introduced to make more efficient use of public funds through selection and concentration of the allocation of research funds.
The GCOE Programme had a stronger focus on developing human resources than the 21st Century COE Programme. It contributed to reforming doctoral studies in graduate schools but also encouraged more interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary efforts in both education and research.
The WPI Initiative is a unique programme. Universities need to build research facilities and secure researchers and research funds in order to conduct research at an adequate scale in new fields. In the past, Japan’s national universities belonged to the central government, which took responsibility for building research facilities and filling research posts. MEXT made decisions on funding allocations based on requests from the universities. The money was part of Japans’ tertiary education budget, but this process was not always transparent. In contrast, the WPI Programme created a competitive and transparent method of allocating the funds needed to build the research infrastructure, rather than fund research projects as in the past. When the WPI was launched, this was not understood; some thought that project funds were unnecessary since research funds would be allocated to WPI centres.
Today WPI is praised not only by the researchers and universities implementing the initiative; it is also lauded as a part of Japan’s overall science and technology policy. This is because it can take on new and interdisciplinary research; it starts by building the research infrastructure and then proceeds to conduct research activities.
The schemes for establishing centres, such as 21st Century COE Programme, GCOE Programme and the WPI Initiative, have become better known, but much research funding is still competitive project funding. Yet “selection and concentration” have moved forward. Higher concentration means relatively lower screening and other costs for the funding agency in comparison with grant figures as a whole. At the same time, many candidate centres may be rejected. The costs of applications cannot be recouped and are a significant financial burden for research institutions. The host institutions that run the programmes also face large financial and non-financial costs. Today, when indirect costs are not covered, the increasing operating costs for host institutions whose centres are selected are significant.
Interestingly, COE-style funding took hold in Japan before performance-based funding was implemented. Today, policies have begun to be introduced to fund institutions in a simpler way, based on various indicators, similar to performance-based funding.W
The remaining challenge for the GCOE Programme and the WPI Initiative is their five- or ten-year term limit. The GCOE Programme must be terminated after five years because there is no way to continue, by selection, evaluation or even by reducing the scale of funding. A common hope, expressed by many involved, is to double the aid period even if it means halving the funding.
The WPI Initiative already has a ten-year funding period, with the possibility of a five-year extension. Still, once the grant stops, it is easy to imagine the plunge in the number of researchers who can be hired and an inevitable drain of researchers. From a global perspective, the drain of highly skilled researchers is not necessarily a bad thing, but if they leave for self-protection rather than the further development of research, the research funding’s “multiplier effect” will be lost and the return on research investment will be paltry.
Both the GCOE Programme and the WPI Initiative were targeted by the government’s jigyo shiwake. The result was a loss of support for indirect costs in the middle of the funding period. This was not foreseeable at the beginning, and it was a “disaster” caused by a political decision. This has taught many lessons. First, because of the amount of funding, major changes in the middle of programmes had a significant impact. The large amount of the funding is itself a weakness when the environment changes. Second, cutting indirect costs to cover budget cuts appears to absorb the shock of the budget costs because in the short term direct spending can be maintained. But because the host institutions must cover on its own the indirect costs of running the centres, the impact is significant. If funding must be reduced, the programmes must be designed with care to deal with such shocks.
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