Japan was euphoric last week after Japanese scientists won Nobel Prizes on two consecutive days — first in medicine and then in physics.
But the nation’s chances of bagging the coveted awards in science fields in 10 to 20 years, and the overall outlook for scientific research in Japan, are grimmer than ever, experts warn.
On Oct. 5, Satoshi Omura, 80, a professor emeritus of Tokyo’s Kitasato University, won this year’s Nobel Prize in medicine for his work on parasitic worms, which led to the development of a drug that combats debilitating diseases affecting hundreds of millions of people in the developing world.
A day later, Takaaki Kajita, 56, of the University of Tokyo, became a co-winner of the Nobel Prize in physics for his discovery of neutrino oscillations, which showed neutrinos have mass.
The news gave a huge moral boost to a nation mired in 2½ decades of economic doldrums. It was also a boon to Japan’s science community, where the memory of the Nobel Prize won last year by three Japan-born physicists for the invention of blue light-emitting diodes is still fresh.
What’s noteworthy about recent award recipients from Japan, however, is that most of them have been honored for their work from the 1980s and 1990s. This is because the Nobel Foundation tends to reward research from 10 to 30 years ago, said Nagayasu Toyoda, dean of Suzuka University of Medical Science in Mie Prefecture.
Toyoda, citing the declining numbers and clout of Japanese research in recent years, argues that the days of Japan receiving Nobel Prizes in scientific fields are numbered.
“Nobel Prizes go to high-quality research that attracts a lot of attention,” Toyoda said by phone this week. “The research that received the Nobel Prizes this time was carried out in an era when Japan accounted for about 10 percent or so of the world’s total science research, in the number of papers and citations.”
The gynecologist-turned-academic looked up the number of papers and citations in five fields — physics, chemistry, biology, material science and space science — which roughly match the fields covered by Nobel Prizes in medicine, physics and chemistry.
In those fields, the percentage of research papers from Japan, and citations for them, started dropping sharply in the mid-2000s, compared with those in the United States, China, Britain, Germany, France and South Korea.
The number of citations, or the number of times the papers are mentioned in other papers, is an important indicator, as it is key to judging how much attention research garners, Toyoda said.
In fact, Japan’s fall, and China’s rise as a research superpower, is quite striking.
According to Toyoda’s analysis, derived from Thomson Reuters’ InCites database, Japan ranked second in the number of research papers in the five science fields in 1982, producing 12,534 papers and trailing only the 33,744 papers authored by researchers in the U.S., against the world’s total of 121,739 papers.
Back then, China was an obscure player, producing only 629 papers.
In 2011, however, Japan’s standing had slipped to fourth. It produced 31,487 of the world’s 392,074 papers. China ranked second, producing 76,664 papers, short of the 78,243 papers produced by the U.S. and followed by 33,517 from Germany.
Toyoda attributed the downtrend in Japan to shrinking state funding for research, and the rise in the amount of time researchers are asked to put into nonresearch activities, such as medical doctors seeing more patients at hospitals.
Toyoda said that, to reverse Japan’s fortunes in the coming years, Japan needs to boost the number of researchers, calculated in full-time equivalents, as some researchers are not able to fully commit themselves to such pursuits.
Also, research in the basic sciences should not be neglected, as they are often the source of revolutionary technologies, such as the discovery of the blue LED that led to the development of an energy-efficient, environmentally friendly light source, he said.
Robert Geller, professor of geophysics at the University of Tokyo, agrees.
The seismologist expressed concern about Japan’s recent shift toward “practical sciences,” as opposed to basic research.
“Nobel Prizes are great, but they are the result of a long process of basic research,” he said. “The present government says they want to emphasize immediately useful stuff. The problem is that this will emphasize incremental improvement, whereas new breakthroughs are by definition unanticipated and must come from bottom-up efforts of individual scientists rather than top-down schemes decreed by government planners.”
Toyoda predicted that, if nothing is done, Japan will no longer see new Nobel laureates in science in 10 to 20 years.
“Of course we cannot always predict prize-winners, as the Nobel Foundation sometimes picks unknown, novel candidates,” Toyoda said.
“But there is no denying that a country’s research capabilities correspond more or less with the prizes. And it’s actually the decline of research capabilities, not the number of Nobel Prizes, that matters, as it would determine Japan’s future potential for innovations.”
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