Advanced science research is at a crossroads in Japan: with the national budget at a plateau, neutrino science is being prioritized

The original article was published in the Iwate Nippo (March 11th edition). Read the original here.

Advanced technology within large-scale devices; searching for answers to the mysteries of the universe – this sort of Japanese science research is at a crossroads. Ambitious projects are being conceptualized one after the other, but with the national budget at a plateau, these concepts must be downscaled. Only a few projects, like neutrino observation (Japan’s specialty), can be focused on right now.

The Ministry of Education, Sports, Culture, Science and Technology put together a roadmap for its large-scale projects last year, where they listed projects in ten-year periods and the budget they would require in the tens of billions of yen. This was made based off the recommendations of the Science Council of Japan, and indicated where the country’s priorities lie in nationally-funded science research.

The largest amount was set aside for projects that aim to unlock the mysteries of the neutrino particles that flow throughout the universe.

The main neutrino research facility would be the Hyper Kamiokande, an observatory facility planned to be built in Hida City, Gifu Prefecture for around 70 billion yen. This facility will conduct world-leading research, paired with a particle collider in Tokai Village, Ibaraki Prefecture. It is planned to be operated for around 30 years, with total costs exceeding 150 billion yen. Foreign research institutions are also anticipated to join in, but the Japanese cost burden will still equal around 140 billion yen.

Hard to keep pace

The SPICA (Space Infrared Telescope for Cosmology and Astrophysics) project, planned by JAXA(Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) and ESA (European Space Agency) will also cost 100 billion yen. Japan’s share is estimated at around 30 billion yen.

However, there are only limited funds available. The Japanese budget for science and technology over the last ten years has trended towards around 3.5 trillion yen per year. The national government plans to add to that amount, but it remains hard to keep pace with the ever-increasing scale of these experiments.

The Kamiokande facility built by Nobel Prize in Physics winner Masatoshi Koshiba cost around 500 million yen. The next generation, the Super Kamiokande, built by fellow winner Takaaki Kajita, was built for 10 billion yen. This next generation, the Hyper Kamiokande, will cost around 7 times that.

Neutrinos are mysterious particles that are very hard to observe, and the more we learn, the more mysterious they become. In order to understand their intricacies, we need better and more powerful devices. We know that neutrinos possess a very small amount of mass, but we don’t yet know why they have flowed throughout the entire universe since the Big Bang.

Iwate Prefectural University President Atsuto Suzuki, who built the Kamiokande with Mr. Koshiba, says, “We will never get the budget we need if we can’t explain exactly what we would be able to find with more powerful devices.”

Shrinking the scale of projects

There are some other projects that are being held up. The ILC, a particle collider planned for the Kitakami Mountains of Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, would be a device that smashes electrons and positrons at close to the speed of light to recreate conditions immediately following the Big Bang. However, the 800 billion yen in construction costs have not yet been negotiated between Japan, the US, and Europe, and the Japanese national government has not indicated whether or not it will build the project.

Researchers changed the plan last year to reduce the costs to around 500 billion yen by shortening the accelerator. However, it is still unclear whether the project will be realized. Tokyo University’s Prof. Yoji Asai insists the project is necessary as we still have questions about the essence of the universe.