Japanese researchers say science-budget hike isn't enough

The 7% rise is unlikely to improve the situation for young researchers, say scientists, after years of stagnant funding.
Pepper the humanoid robot at the SoftBank Robot World 2017, Japan.

Japan's latest science and technology budget included money for academia and industry to collaborate on artificial intelligence technologies.Credit: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Japan will sharply increase funding for science and technology in 2018 after years of stagnant support for the sector. But some scientists and policy experts worry the boost is too little to make up for more than a decade of lackluster science funding.

The total investment in science and technology will climb by 7% to 3.84 trillion yen (US$35 billion) this year compared with 2017, the government’s science advisory body announced on 30 January.

Each year Japan's Council for Science, Technology and Innovation (CSTI) compiles the country’s total science spending, following the release of individual ministry budgets by the finance ministry in December. The year’s boost of 250.4 billion yen comes after minimal growth in the science budget since the early 2000s. “We don’t think the 2018 figures are enough, but we did everything possible and achieved relatively good results,” says Takahiro Ueyama, an executive member of CSTI, which is also responsible for drafting the government’s science and technology strategies.

Some science-policy analysts welcomed the rise, saying the government was sticking to its resolve to boost innovation as a key driver of the country’s economic growth.

The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe aims to boost Japan’s science and technology budget by 300 billion yen per year to meet a goal of 1% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) by 2020, up from 0.65% in 2015. Policy experts say that goal is getting closer to reality. “I don’t see major negative elements in the new budget,” says Yuko Ito, a science-policy expert at the Japan Science and Technology Agency in Tokyo.

Ueyama says 191.5 billion yen in new money comes from ministries agreeing to raise productivity by spending less on conventional technologies in infrastructure, medical and other services, and instead investing in new, more-efficient technologies and automation. For example, the ministry of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism will develop technologies that measure internal cracks in concrete roads, tunnels and bridges, work that is currently carried out by an engineer. “Through these new approaches, we are trying to shift more of Japan’s limited budget to science and technologies,” he says

Paper gain

Besides those actual increases in spending, some of the budgetary boost for science and technology comes from accounting changes. Starting this year, the CSTI has adopted a standardized method for counting science and technology investment by individual ministries that follows the accounting standards of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. This put an extra 80.5 billion yen on the science balance sheet this year, compared with the budget calculated using the old method.

Source: Cabinet office of Japan

Nagayasu Toyoda, president of the Suzuka University of Medical Science in Suzuka, says it is too early to say whether the new money will improve the country’s deteriorating research environment. Past budget cuts have made it harder for younger researchers to find jobs, he says. “If the new budget fails to [improve the current situation], Japan won’t be able to revive its global competitiveness,” says Toyoda.

Several indicators suggest that Japan’s scientific performance has failed to keep up with other dominant science nations. For instance, Japan’s share of highly cited papers has stagnated over the past two decades, compared with Germany, South Korea and China, according to Elsevier’s Scopus database.

Tech support

To boost the country’s economy in the face of its rapidly ageing workforce, the government has been pushing technologies such as artificial intelligence, big-data analytics and quantum optics. In the government’s budget allocations released in December, a new programme to encourage collaborations between industry and academia in these areas received 10 billion yen.

The ministry of economy, trade and industry also received 10 billion yen for a new programme to develop next-generation artificial intelligence chips and computing to make information processing in industry more efficient. The science ministry's initiative to promote high-risk, high-impact research also received a budget increase: to 5.5 billion yen, up 83% from 2017. And the country’s largest competitive research-funding programme, the Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research, was also given a small boost of 0.09% to 228.5 billion yen.

But universities missed out on new money in 2018, despite pleas from scientists and university administrators. Operational funding for national universities remains at just over 1 trillion yen this year, the same as in 2017. Stagnant university funding follows substantial government cuts to their budgets: about 1% a year between 2004 and 2014.

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