Revive Japan’s scientific research

In the 150 years since the Meiji Restoration, progress in science and technology has been one of the key driving forces behind Japan’s modernization. Today, however, the overall prospect of the nation’s scientific research isn’t all that promising. While rapid progress is being made in computer science and robotics, various data show that Japan’s scientific research is on the verge of stalling. The government, universities and other research institutes must take the situation seriously and take rational steps to address the problem.

Since 2000, 17 Japanese have received Nobel Prizes in the natural sciences. But because most Nobel laureates receive the honor for what they accomplished 20 to 40 years earlier, such numbers do not necessarily reflect the nation’s current scientific power. Conditions of Japan’s scientific researchers have in fact deteriorated over the same period. The government’s research and development spending has been flat since 2001 while other countries like China, South Korea and Germany have substantially increased their expenditures. In 2004, when the status of national universities was changed to one similar to independent administrative bodies, government grants to them began to fall, with the fiscal 2017 figure 10 percent less than in 2004.

The British scientific journal Nature reported last March that Japan’s share of high-quality papers in the Nature Index dropped 6 percent between 2012 and 2016 and that publications by Japanese authors in high-quality natural science journals fell 8.3 percent over the past five years. The journal quoted the Web of Science, an online-based scientific citation indexing service, as showing that Japan’s publications in 2015 was more than 10 percent fewer than in 2005 in materials science and engineering — historically Japan’s strong areas — and 37.7 percent fewer in computer science, although publication of papers in medicine, mathematics and astronomy increased.

In contrast, Chinese papers on the Web of Science grew by nearly 300 percent over the same period. Japanese researchers published some 600 fewer papers in 2015 than in 2005, lowering Japan’s global share from 8.4 percent to 5.2 percent. Nature also reported that while the total number of articles in the Scopus data base, which tracks peer-reviewed literature, increased 80 percent in the same decade, Japan’s output grew only 14 percent, with its global share down from 7.4 percent to 4.7 percent.

In August, the National Institute of Science and Technology Policy said the number of scientific papers Japan published fell from 68,000 in the 2003-2005 period to 64,000 in 2013-2015, pushing its global ranking down from No. 2 to No. 4. China’s output increased more than fourfold from 52,000 to 220,000, pushing it to the No. 2 position. The United States remained the world’s leader.

Japan’s fiscal 2016 spending on science and technology research fell 1.1 percent year on year to ¥3.6 trillion at universities and 6.2 percent to ¥1.51 trillion at public and nonprofit organizations. Limited research spending tightens competition among researchers to seek and get competitive funding. Since such funds are provided on an ad hoc basis, they do not help stabilize employment of young researchers and instead lead many institutions to hire researchers on a term contract basis. Nature pointed out that the number of research associates under 40 and on term contracts more than doubled between 2007 and 2013.

The “selection and concentration” approach increases pressures researchers to produce quick results. It also weakens the basis for basic research, which requires an environment that ensures freedom for researchers to engage in projects that could take many years.

The government must scrutinize whether its distribution of funds is directed toward eye-catching research projects and fails to beef up the overall research infrastructure, including at universities outside big metropolitan areas. Symbolic is the recent indictment of two officials of a supercomputer venture business on a charge of fraudulently taking government subsidies. The New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization under the trade and industry ministry and the Japan Science and Technology Agency under the education ministry had reportedly been planning to inject nearly ¥10 billion to the venture.

Research misconduct is another problem. The University of Tokyo acknowledged in August that misconduct was found in five papers supervised and co-authored by a professor at its Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences. Behind the misconduct may have been his and his lab’s desire to obtain research funds even by concocting results. It is also reported that the professor’s power was so strong that free discussion among researchers was difficult.

It is important to increase funding to carry out meaningful research from a long-term viewpoint. The government should also review its science policy, including employment of young researchers, from the standpoint of beefing up the research environment on a broad basis.