Editorials

Review problems in science and technology policy

The latest survey by the education ministry’s National Institute of Science and Technology Policy highlighted researchers’ growing sense of crisis that Japan’s basic science research is not producing internationally outstanding results. While the researchers are becoming more aware that results of the science research are insufficiently translated into technological innovation, their increasingly poor evaluation of the research environment points to a long-term reduction in government grants to universities and other public research institutions, manpower cuts in these institutions and increased workloads on researchers. The government should take their assessments seriously and review its policy in light of the perceived problems facing the nation’s science research.

In its annual survey since 2016, the ministry’s institute polled some 2,800 researchers at universities and public research institutes as well as in the corporate sector late last year. The results released last month were indexed in a 10-point system and the average was compared with figures from the previous year. The 2017 result showed the respondents’ dismal assessments particularly on questions concerning basic research. To a question whether basic science research in Japan is producing enough internationally outstanding achievements, the average response among the university researchers was 4.1 points out of 10 — meaning “insufficient” — compared with 4.7 points in the 2016 survey. The assessment was also sluggish among corporate researchers at 4.0, down 0.5 points from the prior year.

In recent years, the government’s policy on science and technology research — with its basic principle of “selection and concentration” — has placed emphasis on applied research and producing commercial benefits and generating new markets. The priority of government funding was on projects deemed likely to bring tangible results, while grants to support the foundations of research at national/public universities and institutions have been slashed. According to the survey, the researchers think that such a policy has resulted in a loss of diversity in scientific research, declining international presence of Japan’s basic research as illustrated by the fall in the number of papers authored by Japanese researchers published in major science journals, and fewer internationally active Japanese researchers.

The survey points to the respondents’ sense of crisis over the nation’s research environment. Long-term cuts to operational funding have led to freezes on new hires. Concern was expressed over reduced job stability for young researchers, who are most vulnerable to cuts in manpower expenses. The respondents cited insufficient efforts to increase permanent positions for young researchers. Without them, young researchers have to leave the institutes when their terms expire even if they have accomplished research results.

The difficulties confronting many of the young researchers are in turn prompting aspiring students to give up advancing to doctorate courses. There is concern that the emphasis on competitive funding for research is increasing work not directly related to research activities, while pressure for producing quick, tangible results are said to be behind recent cases of research misconduct.

Japan has had a number of Nobel Prize winners in the field of natural science in recent years — but most of those awards were given to research projects conducted up to the 1990s. The state of science and technology research today is a cause for concern over Japan’s presence in the field in the coming decades.

In its fifth Science and Technology Basic Plan released two years ago, the government’s Council for Science, Technology and Innovation acknowledged that the foundation of Japan’s science and technology innovation has been rapidly weakening in recent years — and that its global presence in the science and technology sphere is receding. Many of the problems cited in the latest education ministry study have already been identified. It’s time for the government to take another look at whether its policy is contributing to enhancing the nation’s competency in science and technology research.

Government policy alone cannot solve all Japan’s research problems. Businesses account for more than 70 percent of the nation’s science and technology research spending — which stood at ¥18.4 trillion as of fiscal 2016 and was the third-largest in the world after the United States and China — and employ nearly 60 percent of the researchers. The research regime varies from company to company, but a common challenge is recruiting, nurturing and retaining the capable researchers they need for their businesses, and adequately rewarding in-house researchers for their work — issues that concern their research environment. The policies of each company matters greatly.