According to the World University Rankings 2010-2011, published by the Times Higher Education on Sept. 16, the number of Japanese universities ranking among the world’s top 200 dwindled to five from 11 the previous year.

As a result, Japan relinquished its top position in Asia to China, which had six universities listed among the top 200. The five Japanese universities are the University of Tokyo (26), Kyoto University (57), Tokyo Institute of Technology (112), Osaka University (130) and Tohoku University (132).

The rankings were determined on the basis of 13 performance indicators, including citations from academic papers and the number of students per staff instructor.

The poor performance shown by Japanese universities is a clear indication of the dwindling standards of the nation’s science and technology. A dramatic decline has been noted in recent years in the number of academic papers written by researchers at national universities and inter-university research institutes and printed in science journals. Indeed, the number in fiscal 2008 was 10 percent less than in fiscal 2005.

The United States still maintains the highest share of papers published in natural science journals. But its relative position is in decline. Its share diminished from 33.45 percent in 1997 to 28.27 percent in 2007. During the same period, however, Japan’s share went down from 9.57 percent to 8.18 percent while that of China rose from 2.85 percent to 9.98 percent, surpassing Japan in 2007. South Korea’s share more than doubled from 1.27 percent to 2.96 percent.

In citations, Japan ranked a distant sixth behind the U.S., Britain, Germany, Canada and France, and is now being followed closely by South Korea and China.

What accounts for this rapid decline in Japan’s share of scientific research?

First of all, I would like to point to an unusually small budget allocated to science and technology compared with other countries. In Japan, the amount of public money allocated to higher education is equivalent to a mere 0.5 percent of gross domestic product, which makes it 27th among the 28 member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Sweden ranks first with 1.6 percent. Japan’s figure is only one half of the 1.0 percent average for the entire OECD.

For seven years through 2007, budgetary allocations for science and technology shot up 4.4 times in China, 3.2 times in South Korea, 2.1 times in 15 member nations of the European Union and 1.8 times in the U.S. By stark contrast, the increase in Japan was a mere 10 percent.

Japan also languishes near rock-bottom among the OECD nations with regard to allocations of public money for primary and secondary education calculated as a percentage of GDP. It would be difficult to find another industrialized nation as stingy as Japan in setting aside money for education. Japan’s education budget does not at all reflect the government’s stated goals of consolidating the nation’s scientific and technological foundations, and nurturing outstanding human resources.

The second factor is the 2004 policy of turning national universities into bodies called independent administrative corporations. Ever since then, university instructors have become so busy drafting documents stating medium-term targets, medium-term plans and annual plans, as well as preparing papers needed to secure funds to make their institutions more competitive, that they have had to drastically sacrifice time that otherwise could have been used for research.

Under the principle of “selectivity and concentration,” the government has targeted large sums of funds for a small number of selected projects. But it is beyond the ability of humans to thoroughly screen thick and numerous project proposals and accurately identify projects worthy of selection on the basis of an expected appreciable outcome. It would be far more cost-effective to fund 30 projects at ¥100 million each for five years than supporting three projects with ¥1 billion each for the same length of time.

Since the national universities attained corporate status, it has become a norm for the government to provide funds to a small number of universities that are carrying out large projects. This approach must be reviewed.

Third, since national universities became corporate bodies, government funds to them to cover the costs of personnel and supplies have been reduced by 1 percent every year. This has forced national universities to replace retiring professors not with full-time instructors but with low-paid staff on contract for only a limited time. The percentage of such temporary teachers shot up from 5.8 percent in fiscal 2003 — before the change — to 18.3 percent in fiscal 2007.

The average age of instructors has also gone up because national universities deem it inappropriate to replace a professor retiring at the age of 65 with an instructor in his or her early 40s. Indeed, the percentage of instructors who are 37 years old or younger dropped from 28.2 percent of the total in fiscal 1999 to 21.4 percent in fiscal 2007.

From these statistics at least, it is clear that turning national universities into corporate bodies has had a negative impact on promoting scientific research in Japan. Here are four suggestions for stopping the downward trend of Japan’s scientific research: (1) Conduct a review of how research funds are distributed to universities. (2) Free university instructors from miscellaneous chores so they can concentrate on education and research. (3) Shift the task of screening research projects from professors to experts well versed in specific fields of study.

(4) Recognize that the primary mission of universities is to carry out basic research projects.

Support for the application of knowledge gained from basic research should be left to private enterprises. The government, therefore, should give top priority to supporting basic research by institutes of higher learning.

Takamitsu Sawa is president of Shiga University, Japan.

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