Japan has had a long and distinguished tradition in modern physics. Just to pick one example, the amazing efforts of Shin’ichirō Tomonaga to understand quantum electrodynamics, anticipating the work of Schwinger and Feynman while remaining essentially isolated from the rest of the world during World War II. More recently, Japan has continued to do forefront experimental work, including the SuperKamiokande neutrino detector and the Belle particle physics experiment at KEK. Nevertheless, in my own areas of physics — theoretical particle physics and cosmology — Japan hasn’t had a relatively low institutional profile. There are great individual physicists, but not any one institution of theoretical physics that really rose to the level of other great international places — a place where scientists around the world would naturally think of to spend a sabbatical or send their students as postdocs.
That all changed rather dramatically in recent years, with the founding of the Institute for Physics and Mathematics of the Universe at the University of Tokyo. The IPMU was one of the World Premier International Research Centers that were founded in Japan in 2007, to foster excellence in research but especially to lower barriers between Japan and the rest of the world. The IPMU acted aggressively to hire scientists from outside Japan and host programs that would bring visitors from around the world. And the effort succeeded, with astonishing swiftness; I know that among people I talked to, IPMU was quickly recognized as an attractive place to go with top-notch scientists working there. You can see the results through one person’s eyes at the blog of Susanne Reffert, one of IPMU’s postdocs.
Now all of that success is in jeopardy. As detailed in this letter from Hitoshi Murayama, founding director of the IPMU, the new government in Japan “is actively trying to slash support for programs in science,” and the IPMU is one of the targets. New commissions (staffed by non-experts) have been tasked with reviewing a wide spectrum of programs, and recommending everything from 30% cuts to 50% cuts to outright termination. These cuts are extending throughout science, although new efforts like the World Premier centers are in particular danger.
Admittedly, we live in a time when budgets are tight, and nobody is going to completely escape the pain of the current global economic crisis. But this would be a very short-sighted move on the part of Japan, to undo the great strides they had made in connecting with the international effort in fundamental physics.
Fortunately, there’s something you can do! Hirosi Ooguri here at Caltech informs me that the Japanese Ministry of Education and Science is actually soliciting input from the worldwide scientific community. You can send an email to “nak-got [at] mext.go.jp”, with a subject line “No. 14, WPI.” That will reach people who matter, including Senior Vice Minister Masaharu Nakagawa and Vice Minister Hitoshi Goto.
It would mean a lot if the Japanese government understood how much the rest of the world appreciates the close connections with scientists in their country. Science is not a zero-sum game; when it’s succeeding somewhere, everyone benefits. Here’s hoping the IPMU makes it through this episode intact, and continues to flourish in the future.