More Details On The Japanese Effort To Duplicate The NIH

In the November 8 edition of Science Dr. Takashi Kadowaki, Director of the University of Tokyo Hospital, writes about the efforts to establish a new medical science agency in Japan.  Dr. Kadowaki is also Director of the Translational Research Initiative at the University.

The agency would model itself after the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and serve as a major component of Prime MInister Abe’s strategy for health and medical research.  Even though this strategy reflects a concerted effort to increase health and medical research in Japan, the total budget for this new agency is less than one tenth of the U.S. NIH budget.

The overall research and development budget will not change, meaning that other areas of research will likely face budget cuts.  Dr. Kadowaki is concerned that other fields of life science could suffer in this new budget environment, something he considers counterproductive to improving the ability of Japan to translate biomedical research to clinical and pharmaceutical applications.

Another aspect of this new agency is that its strategy arm will be headed by the Prime Minister.  While this level of political ownership is unprecedented – certainly in the United States – I can identify at least two downsides.  One is the possibility of political micromanagement.  The strategy arm of the new agency is separate for an incorporated entity charged with disbursing research funds.  Hopefully that can serve to mitigate the risks of micromanagement (and conflicts of interest).  Another concern is that this reform effort may stand a decreased chance of surviving after the Prime Minister steps down.  (No, he’s not likely to step down any time soon, but he won’t be in the office forever.)  Initiatives strongly identified with a particular politician often fall out of favor once the politician falls out of power, and it’s tough to be more strongly identified with a reform effort if that person is in charge of one large part of it.

Dr. Kadowaki’s column suggests the conversation around what the Japanese version of NIH will be is just beginning.  I wish Japan all the luck in what seems a daunting task of administrative renewal and reform.