National / Science & Health

Crisis in Japanese science leaves young researchers struggling to find long-term positions

by Shusuke Murai

Staff Writer

On Oct. 3, Japan celebrated the news that Tokyo-based microbiologist Yoshinori Ohsumi had won a Nobel Prize. It was the third consecutive year for a Japanese scientist to win a Nobel.

Yet the achievements of Ohsumi, 71, and other recent laureates seem increasingly out of reach for young Japanese researchers struggling to secure jobs amid a shift in focus toward practical research and a glut of people with doctorates.

At a news conference following his Nobel award, Ohsumi said the entire discipline of science is in danger. He said it will “hollow out” unless young Japanese researchers are given a chance to engage in long-term research.

Ohsumi’s concern is acutely felt by postdoctoral researchers such as Ito (the name is a pseudonym), a 38-year-old contract researcher at the University of Tokyo. Ito fears damage to his career if he is identified by his real name.

After receiving a doctoral degree from the school in 2006, Ito began working as a postdoctoral researcher in human cells at the University of Cambridge in the U.K.

After 8½ years in the U.K., he returned to Japan, where the only academic position he could land was yet another fixed-term job. He is now seeking permanent employment outside academia — a move that would see him cast aside ten years of research experience.

“Scientific research is all about uncertainty; there is nothing promising about where your effort will take you,” Ito said. “The same is true for a career in research. … Your long efforts may not pay off.”

Ito dreamed of becoming a scientist from childhood after becoming an avid viewer of a popular science program on TV. Now in the second of a five-year contract as a postdoctoral researcher, he is uncertain what will happen when the term runs out.

“The reality of academia is that not everything is a success story. Many of the young researchers who underpin science are struggling,” he said. “If this continues, young people simply won’t want to get a doctorate.”

A fixed-term postdoctoral position is a common starting point for young researchers seeking jobs in the academic world. Ideally, they land a tenure-track position after experiencing two or three jobs before they turn 35 — the age after which postdoctoral researchers without a permanent position in the establishment often have difficulty finding either a tenure-track position in academia or a permanent contract in the private sector.

But this has become almost impossible even for a blue-chip scientist like Ito, whose research has been published in high-profile scientific journals such as Nature.

“It’s common for a single tenure-track academic position to attract about 300 to 400 applicants,” Ito said. “Getting such sought-after positions depends largely on whether an applicant has a personal connection with the employer. In that light, my years of research overseas only works against me.”

He knows he may regret throwing away years of experience. “But I think it’s time to make a decision,” he said. “I feel that continuing in my current position for three more years won’t really help to advance my career any further.”

Underlying the plight of many postdoctoral researchers today is a lack of permanent positions in both academia and the private sector, according to Takehiko Kobayashi, a University of Tokyo professor who heads a scholars’ group focusing on the so-called postdoc problem. Kobayashi blames an education ministry initiative from the late 1990s.

Aiming to boost Japanese scientific research to a level on a par with that of the United States and Europe, the education ministry ordered national universities to increase the number of doctoral degree holders, the core of the nation’s academic research.

This band-aid solution, Kobayashi said, caused the number of postdoctoral researchers to surge, from 6,201 in 1991 to 16,446 in 2013. But those who landed a tenure-track academic position between the ages of 25 and 35 fell from 5,428 to 4,982 during that time, according to Kobayashi.

“In the past, most doctors could become a (tenure-track) assistant professor unless they had a significant problem,” he said. “Of course, there are some people whose ability is insufficient. But most postdocs suffering today are talented researchers” who are struggling to find a place where they can shine, he said.

Though a similar problem also exists in the United States and elsewhere, Kobayashi feels it is worse in Japan because private firms are more reluctant to recruit people with Ph.D.s.

According to the education ministry, only 4 percent of corporate researchers in 2009 were doctoral degree holders, against 10 percent in the United States. Another survey by the education ministry-backed National Institute of Science and Technology Policy in 2013 showed that 57.2 percent of companies believe having a doctorate brings no great benefit to their business immediately.

“This is a great loss for society,” Kobayashi said, as most postdoctoral researchers are diligent and ambitious, and have abundant experience in giving presentations abroad.

These are skills that could help Japanese firms sharpen their global competitiveness, he said.

Acknowledging the problem, the education ministry in April began a new initiative to endorse talented young researchers under 40 as “excellent young researchers” and partly fund full-time positions for them at companies, universities and research institutes.

While Kobayashi said the new initiative would help young researchers to some extent, it is no solution to the decline of basic research in Japan.

“The government is now cashing in on such areas as artificial intelligence and regenerative medicine. But that won’t help this country to become immediately competitive with such resource-rich rivals as China and the U.S.,” he said. “Most award-winning Japanese research today is a spinoff from basic research conducted 20 years ago. Young researchers today are not brought in to work on cutting-edge science.”

If the situation does not improve, he said, Japan may find itself without Nobel Prizes in future.

The pressure to produce quick results is keenly felt by young researchers.

One 28-year-old first-year University of Tokyo postdoctoral researcher who asked not to be identified says his research on genetics has no immediate practical use. Despite his love for the field, the researcher said he cannot confidently say the career he is pursuing will lead to a sound future.

“If I continue postdoctoral work for 10 more years and still cannot find a position, maybe I will have to switch careers,” he said. “It’ll be good if I can find a job outside academia that is related to my research. If not, I may have to give it all up.”

So bleak is the career outlook that some Ph.D. candidates are even throwing in the towel before getting their degree.

Fumiaki Nishihara, 31, withdrew from the University of Tokyo’s doctoral program in linguistics in 2013. He now works at an education company, where he writes exam questions.

“I saw many highly skilled colleagues leave school. They were ones I thought could find positions in academia,” Nishihara said. He joined them, fearing he would be unable to find a research job if he stayed.

Nishihara said the situation faced by Ph.D. holders in humanities is even more severe, as most positions available for young postdoctorate researchers in his field were part-time lecturers. This is not a position that helps an individual to advance their research.

“When I began a Ph.D., I thought, without any reasons, I would be able to find an academic job if I tried hard. … But as I realized my efforts wouldn’t really pay off, I felt that the postdoc problem was something that could happen to me,” Nishihara said.

Asked if he thinks he made the right choice leaving the school without a Ph.D., Nishihara said he can only say the decision was “not a mistake.”

“If there were a full-time, permanent position available in academia, I would pursue the career as a researcher once again,” he said. “But I know there is no such position. I know I have to give it up.”