TOKYO--Japan's Ministry of Education is taking its grant-selection process out of the hands of bureaucrats and turning it over to researchers. The new approach, to go into effect next year, will rely on scientists who have agreed to serve as part-time program officers, as well as on a larger pool of referees. The aim is to improve the quality of the reviews by making the process "more transparent and acceptable to the scientific community," says Tasuku Honjo, dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Kyoto University, who is leading the effort on a part-time basis until his retirement from Kyoto next spring.

The new procedures will cover about half of the $1.6 billion worth of competitively reviewed grants funded by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology. The grants cover all areas of the natural and social sciences, engineering, and the humanities. Details will be unveiled at a press conference later this month. Honjo is director of the Research Center for Science Systems, which was created last year by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) to implement the changes.

At the heart of the new system is a corps of 100 academic and government scientists, hired within the past year, who have agreed to spend about half their time in Tokyo and the rest at their home institutions. These program officers, modeled after those at the U.S. National Science Foundation, will coordinate a two-step review process to handle the approximately 70,000 proposals submitted each year. The first step will be mail reviews (six for every proposal), followed by an expert panel to vet those reviews and make the final call.

Program officers have already begun to build a database of potential reviewers, choosing scientists with a track record of winning grants and publishing their results. The previous system left much of the responsibility for choosing reviewers in the hands of professional societies. "At some societies the process [of selecting nominees] was not clear," says Honjo, raising suspicions that reviewers were selected for their connections rather than their expertise.

In another change, reviewers' comments will be sent to scientists for their use in preparing future proposals. In the past, such comments were available only sporadically. After the fact, the center will also identify the referees. "Otherwise, the reviewers would be likely to get a lot of phone calls," Honjo says.

The changes are in line with recommendations last year from Japan's high-ranking Council for Science and Technology Policy. "The amount of money available for grants has increased dramatically, and we need more professional management of these funds," says Hiroyuki Abe, a former president of Tohoku University in Sendai, who chaired a council subcommittee that made the recommendations. The Ministry of Education turned to JSPS, its quasi- governmental affiliate.

Scientists will get their first taste of the system later this year. Honjo says he is eager for feedback to fine-tune the process, which ministry officials hope will eventually cover the entire portfolio of competitive grants programs.

Reposted with permission Science Magazine Vol 305, p. 322, 16 July, 2004