The latest edition of the government’s white paper on science and technology includes a section titled “The arrival of super-smart society” that describes what people’s lives will be like around 2035 thanks to technological progress. It says that people will be able to design their own automatically driven cars as they like, and that artificial intelligence will produce a menu that suits the health conditions of each individual, to be cooked by robots.

The report also delves into the scientific research environment that produced Japanese Nobel laureates and puts forward proposals to increase the number of future Nobel Prize winners produced by this country.

What the government should be doing, however, is examining whether the policies it has been taking have contributed to strengthening the foundation of scientific research — and to correct the policies where they are failing.

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, which compiled the report, says the section on Japan’s Nobel laureates was penned because of a perception that the foundation for basic research, the seed of breakthrough discoveries that could win Nobel Prizes, is becoming fragile. As signs of such weakening, the report points among other things to children’s diminishing interest in science, a decrease in the number of students going on to doctorate courses and the decline in the nation’s overall research capabilities in comparison with other countries.

Over the past decade or so, the government has steadily reduced grants that serve as basic operational funds for national universities and public research institutes, citing tight fiscal conditions. In the meantime, it has increased funds allocated through a competitive process, in which only seemingly promising research projects get monetary support on the basis of an evaluation by experts.

In the past, researchers at national universities had sufficient basic funds allocated through government grants, which enabled them to maintain their research even when they were unable to receive financing from outside sources. Previous Japanese Nobel laureates benefited from this system, but the cuts in government grants have led to its demise. While stable positions in which young researchers can continue their work have become fewer and fewer, positions for fixed-term researchers have grown in number.

There have also been changes in the types of research that win backing. While projects that deal with themes in vogue have been on the increase, diversity and ingenuity are being lost in basic research activities.

The government first needs to look at how researchers regard their work environment. Surveys at national universities and public research institutes, conducted annually since 2011 by the National Institute of Science and Technology Policy, reveal a deepening sense of crisis among the respondents concerning the foundation for their research activities.

In the survey that was conducted last year, researchers expressed various concerns: that compared with 2011, sharp cuts in government grants have made it difficult to carry out diverse research projects; that while budgets are concentrated on large-scale research programs and applied research projects, financial support for basic research has been on a relative decline; and that it is increasingly tough to conduct basic research projects with long-range perspectives.

They also pointed out that research facilities have become obsolete and that talented young researchers tend to give up going on to complete doctoral studies because of anxiety over their career prospects.

In an interview featured in the white paper, Takaaki Kajita, director of the University of Tokyo’s Institute for Cosmic Ray Research and co-winner of the 2015 Noble Prize in physics along with Canadian Arthur McDonald, says that in an environment in which researchers are evaluated on the basis of how many papers they have authored within their fixed term of employment, it is difficult to devote oneself to the kind of research that could lead to winning the Nobel Prize.

Kajita carried out experiments at the Super-Kamiokande detector in Hida, Gifu Prefecture — a 50,000 ton water tank located 1,000 meters underground. In 1998, they showed that neutrinos — elusive subatomic particles that have no electric charge and were thought to weigh nothing — actually have mass, leading the Nobel committee to declare that the discovery “changed our understanding of the innermost workings of matter and can prove crucial to our view of the universe.”

What Kajita said points to a crisis in which the scientific research environment in Japan is crumbling, causing decay in the power of knowledge, which underpins society.

To overcome this situation, it is indispensable for the government to analyze how the government’s science policies have affected the nation’s research environment — and take action to correct their possible mistakes. Merely assessing what researchers feel about their work environment is not enough.

Without assessing the impact of its policies, the government continues to push research projects that have been deemed useful in achieving short-term goals to help spur economic growth. While reductions in government grants have weakened the overall foundations and autonomy of national universities, the government’s “selection and concentration” approach in scientific research has created a disparity between universities that receive ample public support for their research projects and those that do not. This approach must be changed.

Kajita graduated from Saitama University while microbiologist Satoshi Omura, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in medicine, did his undergraduate work at Yamanashi University. This shows that with sufficient funding even smaller universities can be places of excellent research and education. Restoring such a research and academic environment should be the goal of Japan’s science policies.

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