National / Science & Health

Flat level of research funding triggers alarm among Japan's top scientists


Japanese scientist Tasuku Honjo’s Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine has highlighted an issue that has troubled many scientists in Japan: the country’s stagnant research funding, which trails that of its rivals.

Shortly after receiving the news in October that he was being awarded the prestigious prize, Honjo discussed his idea to set up a fund to support young researchers.

Earlier this week, as he left Japan for Stockholm to attend the Nobel Prize awards ceremony, the 76-year-old Kyoto University professor stressed that support for young researchers continues to diminish.

Honjo is alarmed at the current situation, in which the nation’s research funding at universities has remained roughly flat — a fact that stands in stark contrast with many other major nations, where such funding has grown significantly.

Honjo is not alone in his thinking.

“It’s a terrible situation,” an associate professor at a national university in the Kansai region said. “Young researchers have no dreams or hopes.

“If the situation carries on for the next 15 or 20 years, the landscape will be bleak.”

Although the number of postgraduate students in the country has risen thanks to a policy shift in the 1990s, in reality many are unable to find stable jobs at universities, even with doctorates, and are making a living by renewing fixed-term assistant professorships and other posts.

“Students can see their talented seniors struggling. In other words, even if they earn a post at a university, they spend too much time doing chores and can’t concentrate on their research,” the associate professor explained. “This is discouraging students from following the same path.”

According to the government’s white paper on science and technology, the United States by far enjoys the largest research and development funding at universities.

Japan held second place for many years, but fell behind China in 2011 and Germany in 2016, and currently sits in fourth place.

Among major countries, Japan is the only one in which the number of research papers published has declined over the past 10 years. That figure serves as a barometer for research achievements.

In terms of the number of papers in the top 10 percent cited in each field, Japan fell from an average of fourth place in 2003-2005 to ninth place in 2013-2015.

Looking back on his research career, Honjo said he has always been supported by government funding.

He stressed the importance of basic research, saying that his work on the development of cancer therapy by the inhibition of negative immune regulation, for which he won the Nobel jointly with University of Texas professor James Allison, proves that basic research can lead to practical applications.

“Life science is an investment for the future,” Honjo said in regards to the need for bolstered research funding.

“We’ll fall behind if funds are just spent on fields that are profitable right now,” he added.

Toru Nakano, professor of molecular biology at Osaka University, pointed out that the life sciences field is becoming increasingly sophisticated, fast-developing and expensive.

Still, Nakano emphasized the importance of investing funds in research that may not work.

“Continuity is essential in research,” he said. “Once funding is discontinued, it takes a lot of effort to catch up.”