Science and technology plan

The government’s latest Science and Technology Basic Plan, adopted last month by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet, will guide national policy for the next five fiscal years. It seeks to turn Japan into the world’s most innovation-friendly country and build a “supersmart society” to cope with the nation’s various socioeconomic challenges. It calls for government spending of ¥26 trillion over the five years starting with fiscal 2016 — or 1 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product each year — on science and technology investments.

However, as the plan acknowledges, Japan’s research competence as a whole has declined over the years. This is a result of the government’s past policy mistakes. Unless the government seriously examines what has gone wrong and correct the errors where necessary, such a plan will be meaningless.

Such five-year plans have been compiled since the Diet enacted the Basic Law on Science and Technology in 1995 at the initiative of lawmakers to beef up the foundation of Japan’s scientific research. The latest plan emphasizes the need for Japan to push innovations in science and technology to cope with various socioeconomic problems, which are complex due to the low fertility rate and graying of the population, the impoverished state of regional economies and changes in the national security environment. One section of the plan calls for greater cooperation among the government, the business sector and the academia in the field of defense.

The plan envisages the creation of what it calls a supersmart society, in which advanced use of information technology, artificial intelligence and robots will not only heighten the nation’s business competitiveness and contribute to economic growth but also make life easier in such areas as nursing care, medical treatment, transportation and financial services.

While the government is pushing this grandiose idea, it is necessary to look back at and review what happened in science and technology in Japan over the past 20 years. The number of graduate school students in the science fields shot up from 150,000 to 250,000, while the ranks of researchers increased from 680,000 to 860,000. The goal of boosting the number of post-doctorate researchers to 10,000, spelled out in the first science and technology plan for fiscal 1996-2000, has been achieved.

Japanese researchers had been generating an increasing number of scientific papers for some time, but the output started to level off around 2002. Due to the rise of China and other countries, Japan’s relative position worldwide in terms of the amount of scientific papers published is on a path of gradual decline. The government’s new plan acknowledges that the number of papers produced, the number that are frequently quoted (as a gauge of their quality) and the number co-authored by Japanese and foreign researchers are all insufficient.

Japan also has failed to create an environment in which young researchers can give full play to their talent. Many post-doctoral researchers do not have permanent employment. The prospect of an unstable future is leading many students to shun pursuing a doctorate. Many young researchers with uncertain future prospects are working under growing pressure to generate quick achievements. At the University of Tokyo, for example, the number of teachers and researchers without tenure increased from 2,310 in 2006 to 3,830 in 2012, accounting for 60 percent of the total, compared with 43 percent six years earlier.

The government plan says that while the percentage of university instructors 50 years old or older is climbing, teaching positions at universities for young researchers are accounting for a declining portion of the total. It is clear — as the plan says — that the basic foundation for the nation’s scientific and technological innovations is rapidly deteriorating. This worrying situation should chiefly be attributed to the weakening financial foundation for the operation of universities, especially national universities. Amid the government’s tight fiscal straits, annual grants to national universities were reduced by ¥147 billion over the past 11 years and sunk to ¥1.094 trillion in fiscal 2015.

According to a 2015 study by Nagayasu Toyoda, president of Suzuka University of Medical Science, on the impact of the reduced grants on national universities, the number of scientific papers produced in Japan in 2012 was the smallest among developed countries in three important gauges — per 1 million population, per 1 million working-age population and per unit of GDP.

The situation logically dictates that the government should give priority to beefing up universities’ financial foundations to expand their capabilities for scientific research. Government leaders and bureaucrats should keep in mind that universities are the very places that nurture researchers who can generate breakthroughs. They need to create an environment in which researchers can develop scientifically meaningful curiosity and pursue long-term and diverse research themes free of the pressure to produce quick results.