The entire nation was elated for two consecutive days in October with the announcements that Japanese scientists had been named winners of Nobel Prizes — Takayuki Kajita in physics and Satoshi Omura in physiology or medicine.
This was in stark contrast with the scandal last year involving Haruko Obokata, then a biologist at Riken (the government-backed Institute of Physical and Chemical Research). She claimed to have developed an easy method called stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) to produce pluripotent stem cells. But irregularities were subsequently found in her papers and her alleged discovery eventually proved impossible to replicate.
Both sets of news constitute two sides of the same coin as they represent not only the glory and fall of Japanese scientific research but also the past and present of the circumstances surrounding scientists in this country.
Satoru Ikeuchi, an astrophysicist and professor emeritus at Nagoya University and the Graduate University for Advanced Studies, predicted a dark future for Japan’s scientific activities by saying, “We still have something left of the reserves accumulated in the past, but they will sooner or later be depleted. From now on, I fear that Japan will become farther and farther away from winning Nobel Prizes.”
The first Japanese to win a Nobel was Hideki Yukawa, who was awarded it in physics in 1949. In the ensuing 41 years, only five Japanese became Nobel laureates, excluding those awarded the peace and literature prizes. Since 2000, however, Japan has ranked second in the world after the United States in the number of Nobel Prizes awarded to those born in this country.
There usually is a time lag of more than 20 years between the accomplishments scientists achieve and winning the Nobel. For example, Hideki Shirakawa was given the prize in chemistry in 2000 for his synthesizing of conductive polymers, which he announced in 1976 — a lag of 24 years. An exception is Shinya Yamanaka, who won the prize in physiology or medicine in 2012 for his discovery that mature cells can be converted into pluripotent stem cells, which he had made only six years earlier.
The fact that so many Japanese have won Nobels since 2000 means that most of their scientific achievements were made during the 1970s and 1980s. Yoichiro Nanbu and Osamu Shimomura won the 2008 prizes in physics and chemistry, respectively, for work they achieved during the 1960s.
Those were the periods in which the Japanese economy was growing the fastest. As Ikeuchi points out, “Japan made sizable investments in sciences before the economic bubble burst in the 1990s, as symbolized by the big project of building the Super Kamioka Neutrino Detection Experiment (Super-Kamiokande) observatory, which became instrumental in the awarding of Nobel Prizes to two Japanese scientists.”
During the past quarter of a century, however, Japan’s investments in sciences have been running out of steam, just like the economy.
A professor of life sciences at a national university in the Kanto region says he sympathizes with young researchers because they have been driven by a heavy workload with virtually no remunerations. Even though he would like to help them, he says, he can’t because he is too busy writing his own papers and running around seeking funding, without which his research lab could not survive.
This tendency became strong in and after 2004 when all national universities were turned into independent administrative corporations. The change was meant to give those schools greater independence from the state. But things didn’t work that way, Ikeuchi says. Before, the universities were able to pursue research projects without onerous deadlines, thanks to budgets that, though not abundant, they were able to use freely.
It was around that time that the government introduced the principle of “selection and concentration” in its policies related to science and technology. As government grants in aid for national universities’ operating expenses have been steadily reduced, researchers now face increasingly stiff competition to secure funds from various sources.
Scientists can rather easily get funds for projects that draw much public attention or produce tangible results like patent rights, but those involved in basic research always face funding shortfalls.
Writing and publishing papers is indispensable to demonstrate the accomplishments of researchers. Hence the situation characterized by the expression “publish or perish” is becoming worse year by year. Ikeuchi points out that an increasing number of researchers are writing low quality papers just to make it look like that they are accomplishing something.
Ikeuchi says the STAP cell scandal was a result of this situation, in which young researchers are so busy carrying out routine chores that they can’t learn the basics, and “mass production of inferior papers” becomes permissible. This situation produced a scientist like Obokata.
The overall situation is getting worse. The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called for increasing the budget for promotion of sciences under the slogan of making Japan the country best suited for innovative science projects.
A document prepared by the education ministry emphasizes allocation of larger sums of money for research and development and promotion of high-risk research projects. But a “high risk” project does not mean one that can be permitted to end in failure but rather a project that is certain to lead to technological innovations.
In June, the ministry called on all national universities to abolish their departments devoted to the humanities and social sciences or to shift the curriculms at those departments to fields where demand from society is greater.
A professor at another national university says: “It is not just the humanities and social sciences (that are being targeted by the ministry). Even in the field of natural sciences, the ministry, in the next 100 years, will butcher one basic research project after another which is not expected to prove useful.”
The rush of Japanese scientists winning Nobel Prizes in the past decade and a half means only that some of the many seeds planted during the years of rapid economic growth have begun to bloom. But it will become increasingly difficult to enjoy a stream of Japanese scientists winning Nobels if solid and sober research projects are dismissed as wasteful or inefficient, or if the government and universities become so narrow-minded as to reject seemingly crazy enthusiasm by extraordinarily talented and sometimes eccentric persons.
While the recent appearance of new Japanese Nobel laureates may have served to uplift patriotism, it is important not to lose sight of the present disastrous situation in which the number of research seeds that will bloom in the future is dwindling and young researchers who should be looking after those seeds are being exhausted.
This is an abridged translation of an article from the November issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering political, social and economic scenes.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.