IPMU in Tokyo Needs Support

By Sean Carroll | November 22, 2009 12:47 pm

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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia
  • Eamon

    I’ve been following the deliberations of the ‘waste cutting panel’ here in Japan (If following is the word – there’s isn’t much out there on the deliberations, mainly decisions). The level of insight is pretty appalling. In regards to completing the building of the world’s fastest supercomputer the comment was:

    “What good will this be in people’s everyday lives?”

    Funding was then suggested cut.

    In regards the HTV space station resupply vehicle, which is already in production and the subject of international treaties their response was:

    “Find 10% savings.”

    Anyone with any conception at all of engineering projects knows that a cut like that during production in a recipe for disaster – quite literally.

  • Pingback: IPMU in Tokyo Needs Support | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine « Tokyo Bookmarker

  • Chibaragese

    No kidding!
    IPMU in Tokyo cannot diminish,
    because such an institution does not exist.
    In fact, IPMU is in Chiba.
    (University of “Tokyo” has a remote campus in “Chiba” prefecture, and IPMU is in the campus.)

    Joking aside.
    This is a serious problem.
    Let’s support IPMU!

  • Kuas

    No thanks, I’ll pass. There are many, many worthier causes, even within the field of physics.

  • http://disorderedcosmos.com Chanda

    I sent in a letter at the urging of the administration of Perimeter Institute, but I have to admit to experiencing some hesitance. As an American, I can always think of a place where the money would come from (the military budget). But not being familiar with Japanese government priorities, I have no idea what they are up against and whether this is a matter of misplaced priorities or really having their backs up against the wall.

    If they don’t significantly cut science, what will suffer instead?

  • Eamon

    Chanda@5

    Well, if they cut science then they may be able to cover a few more mountains in concrete, or build a lot more roads to nowhere.

  • http://www.aitj-co.com/gcsgz5/blog Gordon Stangler

    I sent a letter, and I am recruiting every scientist and engineer I know to write one. Saving basic science is very important, and it really does not get any more basic than understanding the universe!

  • Hiroshi

    Dear Chanda@5:

    The Hatoyama Government in Japan made a set of populist promises during the election a few months ago, and its total cost is estimated to be over 70 billion US$. Among them is elimination of gasoline tax (25 billion US$) and elimination of highway tolls (6 billion US$), which would add more CO2 in the air. There is nothing about science in their list. The reason that the Government is conducting the public hearing is to decide which programs to cut in order to come up with fund to pay for these promises. I am told that the total number of letters to the Ministry will play an important role for the Government to decide which programs to rescue.

  • Richard E.

    I sent my letter.

  • C3C7

    There are so many better ways to spend money then researching things like string theory for example.

    I believe they are right to cut theoretical physics in times of crisis as this has been one of the least productive areas of science in the last few decades. The field might even benefit if it sees some money dry up as this may dissuade many mediocre people from pursuing it, people who being incapable of tackling big problems instead specialize in propagating fads and playing politics.

  • nanotube

    At least this time, Japanese Government is right. The way these WPI were built and have been operated (not just IPMU, which achieves one of the lowest) is not the right path the best science is ever established. To wit, huge fraction of individual grant was sucked up and placed to WPI program. This means our colleagues at universities and smaller labs had to suffer to
    none. To have astronomical annual budget each WPI spent on time, they had to hire a tsunami of postdocs, hold time-suffocating workshops and events like a hell. Watch out other better running places such as Perimeter Institute, many Max Planck Institutes and IST at Austria. Well planned, carefully-thought and amply time-framed research environments will only count in the end. To wit, this WPI should be shrunken (or eliminated) and the budget must go back to individual grants. Glamors in public media is lost but Japan will regain good tradition of high quality science research.

  • http://disorderedcosmos.com Chanda

    Hiroshi — I really appreciate your explanation. It puts things in perspective. It’s like that time the Governor of California suggested that we cut new taxes and sell California to Wall Street. Worked out so well! Oh wait …

    Anyway, I feel better about having sent in a letter. I am just cautious of telling people what I think before I understand everything.

  • Ken

    nanotube,

    IPMU seems to have already many papers and awards — is it a glamor, or good work?

  • nanotube

    Ken — how many of these papers and, especially, awards are based on the work borne out of IPMU? I believe very little. Having recruited senior scientists, honors and awards would come
    together, but that is not because of IPMU. If someone tries to promote WPI or IPMU based on such, given that they just launched off less than 2 years ago (not 12 years ago), what would you say? I know conscious and faithful scientists wouldn’t do that.

  • Tandon

    Dear Sir
    My research work forwarded CERN lab
    I have developed magic formula by which you can find out the actual mass  of any element though we have not found on earth but available in the universe.the mass of Proton is not actuall what we found .
    you may get the SAME  actual results from CERN LAB

          I have done some work on Proton mass and the last element in the universe. How ever I am sending the mass of each proton shall be as give below
    If you think pl may contact me on this mail —– appalenergy@gmail.com

     ONE PROTON MASS SHALL BE EQUA L=3.175997568 amu IN PLACE OF 1.008145 amu particals shall be in one proton TAKING O=16 CONSIDERATION
    AND ONE NUTRON=3.199180032 amu shall be IN PLACE OF 1.008987 amu AS O=16
    WHICH WE CAN SAY HIDDEN ENERGY=3.199180032 -1.008987= HIDDEN  ENERGY can be calculated as mentioned in case of proton
    I have developed magic formula by which you can find out the actual mass  of any element though we have not found on earth but available in the universe.the mass of Proton is not actually what we found .
    you may get the SAME  actual results from CERN LAB

                                         TANDON
                                                INDIA

  • http://www.shaunedwards.com photographer shaun

    I don’t know if one letter from me will help but I’ll send one for you – you never know!

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Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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