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Japanese research leaders warn about national science decline

Concern mounts over budget cuts and other changes that undermine basic science.


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Toru Hanai/Reuters

People gather for a rally in Fukushima, Japan, for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party.

As Japan heads towards a national election on 22 October, scientific leaders worry that the outcome will do little to address long-standing concerns about the country’s deteriorating research landscape. They say that a decline in funding and a shift away from basic research has undermined Japan’s capacity to compete against both established scientific powerhouses and emerging ones such as China.

Since 25 September, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for a snap election, science has barely featured in the campaign. Debate has focused on the government’s plan to amend the constitution and increase taxes. The latest polls suggest that Abe’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party could lose some seats, but will retain enough to lead a coalition government. 

If Abe is re-elected, he says, his government will pursue an innovation agenda. At a meeting of global science leaders in Kyoto on 1 October, Abe reaffirmed his pledge to turn Japan into “a cradle of innovation” by cutting regulations that impede new technologies.

Despite Abe’s lofty ambitions, the ruling party coalition has decreased the science and technology budget by more than 5% overall since it came to power in 2012. And the budget for universities has dropped by about 1% a year for a decade. “This has been pointed out as the major cause of the deterioration of research performance and, eventually, the global rank of Japanese universities,” says Takashi Onishi, president of Toyohashi University of Technology and a former president of the Science Council of Japan, which advises the government. In the past two decades, the country’s share of highly cited papers has stagnated, whereas those of many other leading nations are rising, according to publisher Elsevier’s Scopus database. 

In an attempt to elevate Japan’s top research universities, the government has introduced reforms that categorize institutions according to their research or teaching focus, and that allocate funding on the basis of performance. The government wants leading research institutions to compete globally for the best students and faculty. 

Atsushi Sunami, a science-policy specialist at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) in Tokyo, agrees with this aim, but says that to succeed, the government will need to increase its research funding. And money alone will not be enough, says Hiroshi Nagano, also a science-policy specialist at GRIPS. For universities to become world class, they need autonomy to decide their research and teaching focus, he says. “The current policy is oriented in the opposite direction.”

Basic research left behind

Changes to the university system implemented by Abe’s government are designed to make academia more responsive to the needs of society and industry, in the hope that it will boost low private-sector investment in research. Although scientists broadly encourage this increased collaboration, some say that it has compromised support for basic research. “The government should focus on the development of basic research to supply seeds or ideas to applied sciences,” says Onishi.

“The government should focus on basic research to supply seeds or ideas to applied sciences.”

Science leaders point to other big concerns about the future of Japanese research. Michinari Hamaguchi, head of the Japan Science and Technology Agency in Tokyo, says that the domestic workforce will be insufficient to keep up with changes in science, technology and innovation, given the country’s rapidly ageing population. He says that policies are urgently needed to encourage more women and foreigners into science and to boost the number of students in doctoral courses, which has dropped by 18% since 2003. 

Students who pursue research careers are finding it harder to get jobs. Budget cuts have depleted permanent research positions at universities, and fewer younger researchers are securing permanent posts: the number of research associates on short-term contracts more than doubled from 2007 to 2013.

Biologist and 2016 Nobel prizewinner Yoshinori Ohsumi has warned that the situation for young researchers will jeopardize the country’s chances of winning future Nobel prizes. Japan has the second-highest number of science laureates in the twenty-first century after the United States — but, Ohsumi says, that record is unlikely to hold.

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An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Michinari Hamaguchi. Also, he is based in Tokyo, not in Kawaguchi.

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