Halting Japan’s Scientific Slide

Economy Science Technology

Japan’s scientific community rejoiced on hearing the news that stem cell researcher Yamanaka Shin'ya had won the 2012 Nobel Prize in medicine. But beneath the jubilation lurk deep concerns over the future of scientific research in Japan. Hayashi Yukihide analyzes the problem and calls for a regional research fund to halt the decline and tap East Asia's scientific potential.

The nation rejoiced to hear that Yamanaka Shin’ya of Kyoto University had been awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. It is certainly gratifying when Japanese researchers receive international recognition for their work in the fundamental sciences. But it would be wrong to conclude from this event that Japanese science is in the ascendant. The truth is that by most indicators, scientific research is languishing in Japan.

The indicator most commonly used to assess a nation’s scientific output is the number of research papers published by scientists in that country. Japan’s National Institute of Science and Technology Policy publishes national rankings using data on science papers gathered from Thomson Reuters and other sources (Table 1). According to NISTEP, researchers in Japan accounted for 6.6% of the scientific papers published between 2008 and 2010. This places Japan at number five worldwide, behind the United States (27.5%), China (11.1%), Britain (7.6%), and Germany (7.4%). Yet from 1998 to 2005, Japan vied with Britain for the number two spot. Since then, our research output has been in a slow quantitative decline.

Table 1. Top 10 Countries by Share of Published Science Papers (2008–2010) 

RankCountryShare of total (%)
1 US 27.5
2 China 11.1
3 Britain 7.6
4 Germany 7.4
5 Japan 6.6
6 France 5.4
7 Canada 4.5
8 Italy 4.4
9 Spain 3.7
10 India 3.7

Source: National Institute for Science and Technology Policy, Kagaku gijutsu no benchimākingu 2011.

The picture is even grimmer when we look at qualitative indicators. The impact of a research paper is gauged by the number of times other researchers refer to that paper in their published works. To take the quality or impact of research into account, NISTEP publishes a ranking of countries according to their share of all research papers that fall within the top 10% in terms of journal citations (Table 2). For the period from 2008 to 2010, the United States topped the list with 42.3%, followed by Britain with 12.0%, Germany with 11.0%, China with 9.2%, France with 7.4%, and Canada with 6.2%. Japan came in seventh, with 5.9%. That represents a sharp decline from the period around the beginning of this century, when Japan ranked fourth behind the United States, Britain, and Germany.

Table 2. Top 10 Countries by Share of Most Influential Science Papers

RankCountryShare of total (%)
1 US 42.3
2 Britain 12.0
3 Germany 11.0
4 China 9.2
5 France 7.4
6 Canada 6.2
7 Japan 5.9
8 Italy 5.6
9 Spain 4.5
10 Netherlands 4.4

Source: National Institute for Science and Technology Policy, Kagaku gijutsu no benchimākingu 2011.

Dwindling Financial and Human Resources

One reason for Japan’s declining performance in scientific research is the relatively slow pace of growth in expenditures. In the leading industrial and industrializing countries, investment in science and technology has grown dramatically since 2000. In China, research and development expenditures have increased seven-fold over the past decade; in South Korea, the R&D budget has grown by a factor of 2.5. Growth has been a bit slower overall in the West, but even so, spending is close to twice what it was 10 years ago. In Japan, by contrast, R&D expenditures grew by only 5.9% between 2000 and 2009. Funding constraints have had a particularly pronounced impact on programs like space exploration and the construction of large-scale advanced research facilities.

Another major problem has to do with the way in which funds are allocated. Basic research in Japan depends heavily on government funding in the form of so-called kakenhi, grants-in-aid for scientific research, and the overall budget for kakenhi has been more or less stagnant at around ¥200 billion. Meanwhile, there has been increasing criticism of the excessive influence that a small clique of elderly scientists—generally felt to be out of touch with global research trends—wield over the allocation of these limited grant funds. Scientists working at universities outside the capital region complain that government grants are heavily skewed toward researchers working in and around Tokyo.

The second basic factor underlying Japan’s lagging performance in scientific research is the relatively small size of our researcher pool. In 2008, China claimed the largest number of researchers with 1.6 million, followed by the United States with 1.4 million. Japan, by contrast, had a pool of only about 700,000 science researchers—half of that for the United States and less than half of that for China. (The figures are adjusted to reflect the full-time equivalent.) Among Japan’s personnel issues are the paucity of Japanese women scientists and the relatively small number of foreign scientists who come to Japan to pursue research. Another major issue is the lack of rewarding career opportunities for promising academic researchers. Even after working long and hard to earn a doctoral degree, a young scientist must typically live for years with the uncertainty of short-term postdoctoral fellowships. For all these reasons, Japan is falling behind in the race to nurture and attract talented scientists.

Flaws in the System

Progress in science and technology depends not only on money and people but also on supporting systems and institutions. And the systems and institutions supporting scientific research in Japan are flawed in a number of ways.

Advanced scientific research in Japan is centered on the national universities. Although these universities were reconstituted as special corporations in 2004 with a view to strengthening institutional autonomy, the results have been disappointing. Research grants are allocated by agencies scattered across multiple government ministries that are unaccustomed to communicating or coordinating with one another. This leads to inconsistency and inefficiency in the national funding system. Systemic problems are also faulted for allowing other countries to get the jump on Japan when it comes to development of international standards, with the result that advances in basic research often fail to translate into new business opportunities.

Many fault Japan’s regulatory system as well. While basic research in bioscience is quite advanced in Japan—as suggested by the honors recently awarded to Yamanaka Shin’ya—there are concerns that stringent government regulations are preventing Japan from keeping up with the United States and Europe when it comes to pharmaceutical and clinical applications.

Reversing the Slide

How can we address these issues and revitalize science and technology in Japan?

The obvious solution is to boost investment in R&D and draw more people into scientific research, while tirelessly pursuing institutional reforms. However, given Japan’s current fiscal crunch and its rapidly aging population, it would be unrealistic to hope for significant growth in either government funding or human resources. The nation is facing painful cuts in programs that directly impact people’s lives, including health care, human services, and pensions. While all of us in the field should join forces and fight for our share of resources, we must also realize that boosting government spending on science and technology—a relatively low priority for the average citizen—will be no easy matter given the circumstances.

I believe we must supplement this sort of frontal attack with a more creative approach. Japan needs to build a collaborative network with other countries in the region, including China, South Korea, and the Southeast Asian nations, to pool our science and technology resources and compete more effectively with the West.

One natural focus for collaboration would be the construction of a fourth-generation synchrotron radiation facility. The SPring-8 facility in Hyōgo Prefecture was built at a cost of about ¥110 billion. Construction of a large, shared research and development facility could cost as much as ¥100 billion to construct. Japan should promote a regional partnership under which it could share the costs of construction with neighboring countries. This kind of collaboration would allow all participants to get the maximum benefit from the funds and personnel at their disposal.

We should also pool our resources in a regional research fund to promote personnel exchanges between countries in the region. For example, Japan, China, and South Korea could each invest an amount commensurate with their resources to establish a fund that would support research by scientists from these three nations and other countries in the immediate region. Japanese researchers today have all too few opportunities to test their mettle and expand their horizons through interaction with researchers from other countries.

Europe has the European Research Council, which provides funding to researchers all over Europe and encourages intraregional personnel exchanges. The United States is a natural magnet for researchers from all over the world. Researchers in East Asian nations have made great strides in recent years, but they always have their eyes on the West, looking for opportunities to conduct research or to establish ties. A research fund targeting East Asian researchers is a good way to nurture the region’s scientific talent while laying a foundation for closer economic and political ties.

Rising tensions between Japan and its Chinese and South Korean neighbors have taken a toll on scientific exchange and collaboration of late. But Japan cannot hope to usher in a new era of science and technology on its own. Rather than allow political friction to interfere with scientific partnerships, let us pursue such collaboration all the more vigorously as a basis for closer economic cooperation and better political ties with our neighbors in East Asia.

China research and development South Korea science Yamanaka Shinya Southeast Asia Nobel Prize researchers