This month's landslide re-election of Japan's Liberal Democrat government seems, on the face of it, to give Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi a clear mandate to reform the country's institutions. One might reasonably expect that the universities and science agencies — whose performance today will help to determine Japan's technical and economic competitiveness tomorrow — would be near the top of the list. Unfortunately, there is scant indication that this rare opportunity will be grasped.

Japan's scientific and technical infrastructure is grounded in the two decades after the Second World War, when the country experienced rapid and remarkably successful industrialization. Its main elements are a proficient but profoundly conservative university system; a powerful civil service that briskly dispenses policy and priorities to the rest of the country; and a strong industrial research sector dominated by a handful of large corporations whose names have become synonymous with technical excellence.

This is a formidable combination that many other nations would envy — but, for the twenty-first century, it isn't enough. The system, however impressive in scale and scope, isn't flexible enough to take Japanese science to the next level, or to fuel the development of sectors, in biotechnology or computer software for example, that will fuel future economic growth. It is not set up to support research in areas such as environmental and public health that match the non-economic aspirations of modern Japan. And it has demonstrably failed to impart Japan's government with the scientific know-how it needs if it is to assert badly needed regional leadership in Asia, on issues ranging from bird flu and global warming to the construction of large research facilities.

Unsurprisingly, none of this came up during the election campaign: Japanese politics rarely revolves around ‘issues’, in the Western sense. This time round, Koizumi's plans to reform the post office — the world's largest financial institution — were an exception to that rule. Politicians normally confine themselves to securing spending in the districts that they represent. Career civil servants, meanwhile, are systematically rotated between positions every two years and are sometimes more concerned with avoiding culpability than achieving results.

Scientific research has been popular with both politicians and bureaucrats primarily as a form of local spending, and it has been generously supported. Yet little thought has been given to its governance. This is one reason why Japan's scientific achievements are still falling some way short of its aspirations.

Too often, Japanese policy on important scientific issues is hammered out in back rooms. A public hearing is then held and a decision made. Outcomes are rarely clear-cut, and no one takes responsibility for implementing them. In the case of human embryonic stem-cell research, for example, researchers were told that they had the right to do it, but were so obstructed by red tape that little research has actually been done.

Japan could use scientific collaboration to improve relations with its neighbours, including China and South Korea.

What could a genuinely reformist government do? It could start at the grass-roots of science, in the universities, and make it a priority for them to open up both junior positions and tenured ones to young researchers, as well as to women and foreigners. It could introduce evaluation systems that encourage creativity instead of rewarding longevity. Some long-overdue changes at the universities, implemented last year, will have only a marginal impact on these issues.

The government should create an office, akin to the US Office of Research Integrity, to police scientific conduct. It should strengthen the Science Council of Japan, which advises the prime minister, and the Council for Science and Technology Policy, which influences the science budget, so the nation can develop a science policy worthy of its size and economic clout. It could fill some rank-and-file bureaucracy positions with scientists or former scientists, opening up a career path for struggling postdoctoral students. Currently the science ministry, the patent office and the main science funding agencies are all woefully short of staff with specialist knowledge.

Japan could then prepare itself to fill the leadership void in the Asia–Pacific region with regard to issues such as bird flu and global warming. It could then use scientific collaboration to improve relations with its neighbours, including China and South Korea.

There is little indication that Koizumi will do any of this. For as long as his government instead maintains its lukewarm embrace of science, Japan will continue to punch below its weight in terms of both scientific output and policy leadership in the region.