Who Says Science Has To Pay Off Fast?

In the hills of Hyogo Prefecture, about 60 miles west of Osaka, workers are lining up 904 brightly colored magnets in a gigantic underground ring. Nearly four-fifths of a mile in circumference, it will store X-ray radiation from electrons speeding around a particle accelerator at nearly the speed of light. The rays will power microscopes that can peer inside molecules and track chemical reactions lasting trillionths of a second.

When it's opened in 1998, the Super Photon Ring, known as Spring-8, will be the world's largest facility for short-wavelength radiation--and a potent symbol of Japan's efforts to build a better foundation in science. The project will cost $1 billion-plus and won't produce any leap in videocassette recorders or minivans. But such efforts, says Tohru Amano, a research director of Japan's Science & Technology Agency (STA), "are the only way to prepare for the future."

RETHINKING. That simple statement marks a dramatic about-face for Japan. For nearly 50 years, its science policy was the handmaiden of nation-building, financing the development of products and processes mainly to secure dominance in consumer electronics, computers, and other industries. For its basic research and fundamental technology, Japan relied on advances made elsewhere.

It began to change course in the late 1980s, under U.S. pressure to stop freeloading off Western research. And now, Japan is revving up just as America's love affair with basic science is cooling. Because of tight budgets and a push by the Clinton Administration and Congress to tie funding to commercial results, Washington's support for basic science is leveling off, while total research and development outlays rose just 5% last year, to $68 billion. U.S. industry, meanwhile, has cut its long-term research by 15% since 1986.

The Japanese government doled out a seemingly modest $26 billion for R&D last year, but it is raising spending by nearly 8% a year. Government spending for basic research--that driven by curiosity and the quest for knowledge--is rising even faster: Of the $17 billion disbursed to national and prefectural laboratories last year, $2.7 billion went for basic research, a 16% increase. Most of those new projects won't ring cash registers until well into the 21st century. That's a step up from the technology sprints Japan executed in chips and manufacturing in the 1970s--and a red flag for the U.S. The Japanese, says John L. Simonds, head of the National Storage Industry Consortium, "are about to gain a fundamental technology advantage over us."

Japan's growing science commitment is most visible in companies. Although many have slashed their R&D budgets during the worst recession in memory, the largest players are leaving intact projects aimed more than 10 years out, according to Japan's National Institute of Science & Technology Policy. Electronics companies, especially, have kept up long-term work in superconducting materials, optoelectronics, and even basic physics. In the U.S., where five years is now considered long-term, corporate giants such as IBM and American Telephone & Telegraph Co. have cut such work. By contrast, NEC Corp., which lost $400 million last year, will spend $20 million, up 10%, for long-term research at its Princeton (N.J.) lab this year. Fujitsu Ltd. and Hitachi Ltd. likewise are continuing research into exotic semiconductors that could be 20 years from commercialization.

QUANTUM LEAP. In these pursuits, the government remains a staunch ally. Tokyo has made quantum devices a priority, for instance. In conventional chips, the behavior of individual electrons doesn't matter much. But with the much smaller devices Japan has targeted, the state or movement of a single electron becomes the basis for a superfast switch or storage element. The government is funding at least nine projects based on this technology, which has helped Fujitsu and Hitachi develop some of the first working devices based on quantum mechanics. The wealth of research in this field also is drawing top scientists to Japan. Among them is Richard Kiehl, a veteran of research posts at several major U.S. companies, who is now assistant manager of Fujitsu's Quantum Electron Devices Laboratory. "There is massive enthusiasm for exploratory work in Japan," says Kiehl, whereas in the U.S., "the arrows are moving in the opposite direction."

Computers are attracting a long-term commitment, too. In the early 1980s, the Ministry of International Trade & Industry's Fifth Generation Computer Project set out to develop prototypes of computers that could deal with human-style logic. The products proved unpopular, but MITI's undaunted planners launched a $200 million successor project last year, called the Real World Computer Project, to explore neural networks and computers that run on light pulses. This time, research planners don't set any commercial targets. The goal is simply proving the technology.

SECRET SHARERS. Japan's nationalistic view of science also is undergoing a metamorphosis. Where research results once were closely guarded, Japan now shares some of them with foreigners. It has even loosened its grip on prized production technology, which is leaking through offshore ventures and cross-border alliances. "The Japanese feel they have something to contribute in science, and that the world requires it of them," says David K. Kahaner, associate director of the U.S. Office of Naval Research in Tokyo, which tracks Japanese science trends. Spurred by new guidelines the government adopted in 1992, Japan's science agencies now accept foreign participants--and laws have been amended to help protect their patent rights. So far, a dozen companies have jumped at MITI's invitations, including Texas Instruments Inc. and Dow Corning Corp.

Japan hasn't forsaken its market focus. Most of its labs still pursue new materials, optoelectronics, and miniaturization, the underpinnings of its $220 billion electronics industry. "Most MITI projects are aimed at technology development," says Naoki Hirose, aerodynamics chief at the STA's National Aerospace Laboratory in Tokyo. Hirose's own lab has spent millions with Fujitsu to construct a huge supercomputer for aerospace research. It relies on 140 parallel processors to achieve the world's fastest computing speeds for aerodynamic simulations: about 236 billion operations per second. The machine helps with scientific calculations but is most often used for jobs such as aircraft design.

Spring-8 has a practical goal, too: those ultrasensitive microscopes. Still, to the STA's Amano, that counts as fundamental research. "In the coming century," he says, "the world will need these tools to cope with new scientific parameters." As research budgets are slashed outside Japan, scientists are just glad such work is being done somewhere.


It's raising budgets for university and government lab research.


The government is steering

money toward environmental

research, studies of disease, physics, and space.


Research efforts are now open to foreign participation. More are headquartered overseas. Patent rights are shared among participants. New technology is shared with developing countries.


Bureaucrats are trying to end turf wars between the ministerial fiefdoms that control science.