Science

Kyoto University to close leading primate center over misuse of construction funds

Kyoto University plans to disband its celebrated Primate Research Institute (PRI) because of the misuse of government funds under former Director Tetsuro Matsuzawa. By March 2022, the university will move PRI’s research groups to other institutes and university departments. The institute’s 12 chimpanzees and dozens of monkeys will continue to be housed, and will still be used for research, but PRI’s operations may be gradually scaled back.

The university’s yet-to-be finalized decision was first reported by the Sankei Shimbun newspaper on Thursday evening, although a shake-up had been rumored for several weeks. A Kyoto University spokesperson says the school has no comment, but sources close to PRI confirmed the impending closure to Science. Matsuzawa, who was dismissed from his post as a distinguished professor at the Kyoto University Institute for Advanced Study in November 2020 and is now a visiting researcher in psychology at the California Institute of Technology, wrote in an email that he has “no comments” at this time. 

Kyoto University also has a Wildlife Research Center housing chimps and bonobos rescued from biomedical research in a sanctuary in Kumamoto, on the southern island of Kyushu. It is unclear what will happen to that facility.

PRI researchers won international recognition for their surprising observations of Japanese macaques washing dirt off sweet potatoes before eating them and passing this cultural practice on to descendants in the wild. Work with captive chimpanzees revealed unexpected cognitive abilities, such as connecting colors with their written kanji characters. “This is a sad and shocking outcome that will have a negative impact on science because PRI is arguably the leading center for the study of primates in the world,” John Mitani, a primate behavioral ecologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, wrote in an email to Science.

To provide a more natural environment for captive chimps, Matsuzawa won $10 million in funding to construct large, interconnected cages on PRI’s campus in Inuyama, near Nagoya, and at the Wildlife Research Center. Investigations by the university and the Board of Audit of Japan found mismanagement of construction contracts involving 1.1 billion yen ($9.6 million), according to a university report released last year. Questionable practices included working with favored contractors and not specifying building details until after contracts were awarded. Matsuzawa was never accused of taking money for personal use.

In a statement posted on his website in November 2020, he acknowledged mistakes were made, but wrote that the conclusions of the investigative committee were based on improper fact finding. In May, he sued the university seeking reinstatement and payment of back salary, according to local press reports.

The Sankei Shimbun says Kyoto University has already returned about 900 million yen to the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, a government funding agency, and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology is considering whether to ask for additional reimbursements. The university may rely on savings from disbanding PRI and reducing staff to raise the money.

Primatologist Frans de Waal of Emory University says he can’t comment on whether the disciplinary action is warranted. “But [I] do wish to express my dismay at this outcome, which is bound to be devastating for Japanese primatology,” De Waal wrote in an email to Science. PRI’s facilities “are first-rate and we can only hope that the animals will be taken care of into the foreseeable future.”

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