How are the science institutions of Japan faring four months after the earthquake and tsunami?

Four months have passed since the earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated the east coast of Japan. And while rebuilding is now under way, progress at the local level is slow and impeding the recovery of universities in the disaster-stricken area. 

According to estimates by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, the total damage to universities could exceed ?90 billion, although it is highly likely that this figure will rise as reconstruction continues. 

Tohoku University, one of the world’s top engineering universities, arguably suffered the most damage. Property damage to the university is estimated at over ?77 billion (?596 million) in total, according to Japanese news agency Kyodo Tsushin. Around 7000 pieces of lab equipment were destroyed and 28 buildings will need to be rebuilt. 


Source: © Tohoku University

A severely damaged building on the Aobayama-campus at Tohoku University

The Aobayama-campus was among the most seriously damaged. A fire swept through the chemistry department, fuelled by lab chemicals. On top of this, efforts to douse the fire caused serious water damage to the building and electrics. The building was declared off-limits, and the laboratory work was moved to other buildings as research groups were unable to function. However, restoration of the laboratories is proceeding apace and is almost completed, with researchers expected to be able to move back in shortly. 

Tadahiro Komeda, a professor of nanotechnology at Tohoku University, estimates that it will take more than a year for research to get back to the stage it was at before the earthquake struck, even in the Katahira-campus which suffered relatively little damage. 

The government has set up a reconstruction support fund of ?3 million per laboratory to help Tohoku University. ’Funding for reconstruction assistance is desperately short,’ Komeda says. ’We must apply for all competitive funds to get a sufficient restoration cost.’ Most labs will apply to the Japan Science and Technology Agency for aid - the only fund that is limited to just the Tohoku region - which is providing ?5 million for 40 laboratories (?200 million in total). 

Tsukuba University was also severely damaged. Estimates of the cost of the disaster to the university are put at ?7 billion. 

Japanese researchers affected by the disaster received many offers from European institutes to take up short-stay positions, Komeda says. However, the majority threw themselves into efforts to get their labs back up and running and, consequently, rejected the offers in most cases. Komeda, on the other hand, worries that the cancellations by many scholars that were planning to visit Japan may affect future research. He says that restarting international research exchanges will be vital for the recovery of the country’s research base. 

Some institutions were luckier than others. Ishinomaki Senshu University is close to the area destroyed by the tsunami, but it escaped much of the worst damage. The university immediately offered shelter to earthquake and tsunami victims and volunteered its buildings for the relief effort. However, this has brought its own problems, with disruptions to life on campus. Educators say that if the present situation continues much longer, there are concerns over the impact it could have on teaching at the universities. 


Source: © CN-INTERVOICE/JST ScienceNews

Repairs to labs after damage are proceeding more slowly than hoped

’The influence [of the disaster] on education has been bigger than that on research,’ says Fumitaka Narumi, associate professor at Ishinomaki Senshu University. Many universities in eastern Japan took the unusual step of delaying the start of the new term by one or two months and cancelled official ceremonies. Electricity shortages are anticipated this summer as a result of the damage to nuclear power stations along the edge of Japan’s eastern seaboard, and this has created another set of problems for universities. Like many institutions in the region, Ishinomaki Senshu University is considering cuts to its summer lecture timetable, and Narumi is worried that maintaining top quality education may be difficult with so little teaching time available. 

Narumi also points out that the commute to university now takes far longer for many students and staff. The railway from Sendai to Ishinomaki was totally destroyed by the tsunami, and restoration of the line is still a long way off. Some roads are still not cleared yet either; getting to the university takes much more than twice as long as before. ’The restoration of transportation should be given top priority to regulate the educational environment,’ he says. 

Hiromi Kuramochi