Ensuring Success for J-NIH

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Science  08 Nov 2013:
Vol. 342, Issue 6159, pp. 670
DOI: 10.1126/science.342.6159.670

On 30 August 2013, the Japanese government decided to reserve part of its 2014 budget for the launch of a control tower for medical research and development (MedR&D), which, modeled after the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States, has come to be known as the Japanese version of NIH (J-NIH). By integrating all MedR&D projects currently run by the government's compartmentalized ministries, the new institution is expected to ensure strategic budget allocations and facilitate a seamless flow from basic biomedical research to clinical applications.

J-NIH is the main feature of the health and medical strategy developed by Prime Minister Abe and his administration, which swept into power in the general election last year. Although Japan has long presented itself as a scientific and technological powerhouse, its basic life science research has often failed to lead to the development of pharmaceuticals or medical devices because of a weak translational process. The government regards a health and medical strategy aimed at promoting longevity and industry competitiveness as an important part of an overall plan for economic growth. But this objective should not come at the expense of basic life science research.

J-NIH will consist of a Health and Medical Strategy Headquarters, headed by Prime Minister Abe, which will develop its overall polices. J-NIH will also include an incorporated administrative agency (IAA) to allocate funds to universities and research institutions. Next year, IAA is expected to control a budget of 138.2 billion yen, an increased investment in MedR&D of 37% from 2013. J-NIH's main projects currently address major diseases facing Japan, such as cancer and dementia; bring the world's cutting-edge medicine, such as induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell–based regenerative medicine and genomic medicine, to the clinical arena; and reinforce the infrastructure needed to produce innovative pharmaceuticals and medical devices.


The J-NIH concept may be considered a welcome break from ministries long regarded as detrimental to appropriate budget allocation. However, the budget for basic life science R&D remains suboptimal at less than one-10th that in the United States. Indeed, the J-NIH anticipated total budget of about 226 billion yen ($2.3 billion U.S.) does not compare with the NIH 2013 budget of approximately $30 billion. It is particularly important to note that the U.S. NIH designates more than 80% of its budget to competitive research projects proposed by universities, medical schools, and research institutions,* and approximately half of the U.S. NIH budget is devoted to basic research. As the history of science shows, innovation thrives on broad-based research that sprouts from a “freewheeling” culture of creative thinking in academia; the iPS cell research of Nobel laureate Shinya Yamanaka and his colleagues is a case in point.

With the overall budget for science research remaining the same, it is a matter of great concern among scientists at universities and research institutions in Japan that J-NIH may be associated with budget cuts for broad basic life science research. This must not happen. Japan has lagged behind Western and Asian countries in relative citations in both clinical and basic research; this has been the result, in part, of dwindling funds for basic life science research.

I strongly urge that both basic life science and translational research be strengthened at the same time in the 2014 budget in conjunction with plans to launch J-NIH. Importantly, as per the RU11 (a consortium of 11 research-intensive universities in Japan) recommendations of 2013, opinion on Japan's investment in science and innovation should continue to be widely sought in the scientific community, reaching out beyond the industrial community and the governmental Council for Science and Technology Policy. My sincere hope is that open discussions on a future J-NIH will touch off a reform of the current compartmentalized institutions that will increase support for both medical and basic life science research at large and allow genuine strategic innovation in translational research.

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