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Osaka Bioscience Institute fights for survival

Posted on behalf of David Cyranoski.

On 5 April, Shigetada Nakanishi, the director of the Osaka Bioscience Institute (OBI) in Japan, received some very bad news: the city of Osaka planned to terminate its support for the institute within four years.

The proposed cut is one of many in the city’s renewal plan, which was first posted on the municipality’s website that day. “That was the first I had heard of it,” says Nakanishi, a neuroscientist. “We were never given a chance to explain OBI’s achievements or vision. City hall’s policy is bewildering.”

Nakanishi is fighting back, trying to rouse support with a petition. But he is not optimistic: his adversary, Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto, polls as the most popular politician in Japan, and some tip him to be the next prime minister.

Under the city’s plan, which came into effect at the beginning of the fiscal year in April, OBI will lose about one-fourth of the ¥626 million (US$7.8 million) in funding it received from the city in 2011. Further cuts will see funding zeroed by 2015. OBI now receives about ¥657 million from external grants and, to a lesser extent, collaborations. But without the overhead support from the city, it will no longer be able to compete for grants, and industry will also turn away, says Nakanishi, meaning that OBI will have to close.

Over its 25-year history, OBI has been a small but extremely active part of Japan’s research community. Between 1991 and 2001, it was ranked first in publication impact in molecular biology and genetics by Thompson Reuters. More recently, it has published prominent papers in neuroscience and behaviour.

To make his case for OBI’s continued existence, Nakanishi is appealing to that publication record. He says that OBI has cultivated dozens of young researchers who later became university professors or scientists in industry and other research institutions. He also says that OBI has proved to be an international success by luring researchers from abroad, sharing disease models and genes with scientists overseas and forging international collaborative projects.

Osaka city says that OBI does basic research that doesn’t directly benefit the city, and advises that OBI seek funding from industry or the government, noting that four other major cities — Kobe, Nagoya, Yokohama and Kyoto — do not support such research institutes.

Nakanishi says that Osaka should instead follow the example set by Tokyo, which gives ¥4 billion a year to the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Medical Science, or Chiba prefecture, which spends ¥1.3 billion a year on the Kazusa DNA Research Institute. “Osaka is emphasizing the importance of biomedical research and therapy as a key to future economic growth,” he says. “That’s exactly why we need innovation and internationally competitive basic research.”

But in a Japan disillusioned by the government’s perceived mishandling of last year’s nuclear disaster and by its efforts to restart nuclear reactors despite widespread public opposition, a staunchly anti-nuclear Hashimoto has tremendous popularity and authority.

The city is accepting public comment on the plan until 29 May; Nakanishi has circulated a petition and asked supporters to write to the city office. “Once our record of achievement is interrupted,” he warns, “it’s not possible to rebuild.”

UPDATE 29 June 2012:

Nakanishi today told Nature: “Although the Osaka City received more than 600 public comments against its policy to the OBI, there was no change from the original proposal, in that they will reduce 25% of budget every year and finally close the institute three years later.”


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