The Crisis Facing Japanese Scientific Research

Science Technology

In March this year, an editorial in the British journal Nature showed that the pace of scientific research in Japan has slowed considerably over the past decade. Nakano Tōru, a leading stem cell researcher, discusses the challenges facing researchers in Japan and some of the structural weaknesses holding science back.

The Decline and Fall of Japanese Science

A leading British science journal recently carried an article with upsetting implications for anyone involved in science in Japan. The report (carried in the March 23 edition of Nature) showed how the pace of research in Japan has slowed considerably over the past decade. Alarmingly, Japan is falling behind other leading countries. Almost universally, the Japanese media presented the contents of the article as shocking news. But for most people in the field, the report only confirmed the fears we have had for some time.

At the heart of the report, titled Nature Index 2017 Japan, was an analysis of the numbers of scientific papers published by Japanese research institutions in recent years, compared with the equivalent figures for other countries. Nature also speculated about some of the reasons why research in Japan has fallen into its current slump. In this article, I want to summarize the findings of the Nature piece, and add a few comments based on my own experiences as a researcher in life sciences at one of Japan’s national universities.

The main databases used in the survey were Web of Science (WoS), Scopus, and Nature Index. WoS and Scopus contain details of papers published in tens of thousands of scientific journals; Nature Index does the same for 68 selected “top” journals in natural sciences. Between them, these databases give a good impression of trends in scientific publishing around the world.

The WoS and Scopus figures reveal that in the decade from 2005 to 2015, the number of scientific research papers published in Japan either decreased or stayed at the same level in every field. At first glance, merely holding steady might not seem so bad—but the reality is much worse than these figures alone suggest. Over the same period, according to Scopus, the total number of papers published worldwide increased by 80%, but in Japan, there was just a 14% increase. Nature Index, meanwhile, shows that in the four-year period from 2012 to 2016, the number of papers published in Japan actually fell by 8.3%. Publications in the United Kingdom were up by 17.3% over the same period; in China, there was an increase of nearly 50%. The volume of scientific research is steadily declining in Japan at the same time as other countries are producing more research than ever.

The Postdoc Trap

The biggest institutions involved in publishing academic papers in Japan are the national universities. The basic research funding in the form of “management expense grants” for these institutions have declined by around 1% almost every year since 2004, when the national universities were converted into nominally independent corporations under a sweeping set of new regulations. The government’s science and technology budget has remained more or less the same since 2001. Again, this represents a clear decrease in relative terms, since funding in other countries has increased substantially over that time.

These budget cuts are often cited as the biggest reason for the decline of the quality and volume of science research in Japan. If funding for the management expense grants continues to fall, universities will have no choice but to reduce the number of permanent research positions. Some universities have suggested that up to a quarter of faculty positions would need to be cut.

In the 1990s, the government launched a plan to boost the country’s postdoc population to 10,000, with the aim of increasing the number of highly skilled young people entering the workforce. Things did not go according to plan. Rather than applying for corporate jobs as the government had hoped, many of these newly minted postdocs chose to remain in academia instead. But since the number of permanent academic positions is falling, they often wound up stuck in precarious adjunct positions. Since 2003, the number of students going on to pursue a doctorate has fallen steadily, probably because prospective students have seen the dismal prospects for young scientists at first hand.

Scientific research is like a cycling race—momentum is everything. If the current situation continues, the national universities will lose the energy they need to keep going. Slow down, and it takes a lot of strength and effort to get back up to speed. Eventually, the cyclist will run out of energy and be unable to continue.

We need to start thinking seriously now about measures we can take before we get to that stage. It may already be too late. It could be that scientific research in Japan has already hit the wall, and that exhaustion has paralyzed our thought processes and made it impossible for people to see what is happening in front of their eyes. When we reach rock bottom and start pedaling frantically again, it is going to require serious amounts of effort and energy to get back to the position we once enjoyed close to the head of the pack. We might never catch up again.

The Problem of Short-Sighted Unbalanced Funding

The government has concentrated much of its investment in several priority areas. These include the World Premier International Center Initiative, which aims to produce world-class research centers, and in fields such as regenerative medicine, particularly iPS cell research. But since the total amount of funding has barely increased for years, investing heavily in particular areas like this inevitably means cuts and repercussions elsewhere. Many research projects have been canceled as a result—including, for all we know, promising projects that might otherwise have gone on to produce major breakthroughs.

There is always the possibility that scientific research will lead to discoveries that no one could have foreseen. The case of Ōsumi Yoshinori, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2016, is just one case in point. Companies like Google and Apple, fêted as exemplars of innovation today, were not spun out by major big corporations. They got their start in someone’s garage. These facts should give us pause. Do we really want to focus our funding on areas that happen to be at the cutting edge of research now, investing in areas where considerable funding already exists, or where a celebrity researcher happens to be working? Are these really the best ways of directing our limited funds? We need to look carefully at the data and run an empirical examination of the costs and benefits. We may well find that funding has been excessively concentrated in certain areas.

Another point raised in the Nature article was that young researchers in Japan often show little eagerness to become principal investigators in charge of their own research labs. The process by which young researchers become independent and follow their own ideas is an important part of innovative research.

For young researchers, belonging to a lab led by a well-known professor represents an easy option. They can concentrate on their own research without having to worry about funding or the administrative aspects of running a lab. Partly this may be cultural—an aspect of the Japanese tendency to seek safety in the shelter of a powerful mentor figure. But I think there is more to it than that. If these young researchers do go independent, some harsh realities lie in wait. And this acts as a powerful disincentive, holding them back from breaking out on their own.

The crucial problem is funding. In Europe and North America, young researchers looking to start a lab of their own have access to substantial start-up funding. Unfortunately, Japan’s national universities are generally not in a position to invest in startups of this kind—with a few exceptions. And because management expense grants are not sufficient to fund a research project in its entirety, institutions and researchers often need to get competitive funding as well. This involves submitting a proposal for assessment by a third party, after which funding is allocated to the most promising projects. Japan lacks a system of funding that would allow young researchers to follow their own ideas free from financial anxiety.

Job Insecurity

One method that supports the independence of young researchers is the tenure track system, under which young researchers build up experience on a fixed-term employment contract, and are then offered a tenured position (essentially a job for life) if their work produces results. This system is widely used in the United States. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) has recommended that a similar system be more widely employed here in Japan, but it has gained little traction so far.

My own university trialed a tenure track system (known as the Osaka University Life Science Young Independent Researcher Support Program) for five years from 2008. As one of the people responsible for administering the system, my honest opinion is that introducing a similar system across the board would be almost impossible at the present time.

There are simply too many problems that need to be solved first: setting up a system to aggressively promote the best young researchers, for one thing, not to mention the difficulties involved in running fair tenure evaluations, encouraging a new mindset among those members of the faculty (the majority) who are not on the tenure track, ensuring sufficient investment funding for start-ups and other projects, and so on.

In April this year, a month after the Nature report, the government’s Council for Science, Technology, and Innovation announced its initial budget for the fiscal year, which included plans to increase science and technology funding by ¥900 billion over the next three years. But according to reports in the media, this amount includes preexisting grants in other areas, including agriculture and architecture, which the committee decided could be turned into “demonstration experiments” by being combined with the latest information technology. Because of this, the amount of the increase for actual scientific research is still unclear.

Other Problems

In many fields, research methods are progressing rapidly. This is particularly noticeable in the life sciences. A given project might require advanced equipment like a Next Generation Sequencer (capable of reading the base sequences of DNA at high speed) or need analysis to be carried out using high-precision optical apparatus. As a result, the funding required for this kind of research is increasing all the time. Many Japanese labs are being left behind and excluded from this type of cutting-edge work.

But although more funding is obviously an essential part of putting Japanese research back on its feet, it will not be enough on its own. To be successful, we need a throughgoing reform of the entire education system and a massive shakeup in the mindset of the faculty.

MEXT has launched several programs to encourage reform of the various systems in place in our universities. But although universities apply to these programs for funding, a lot of the time, I’m afraid to say, they merely take the money and run, without ever implementing any meaningful reforms. As we saw with the example of the tenure track system, any attempt to bring about fundamental reforms in our education system is likely to face serious hurdles.

Several deep-rooted problems need to be addressed, including vertically divided departments and rigid administration systems. The way that funding and responsibilities are divided among education, research, and administration is a model of inefficiency. Other serious problems lie in the background to these problems, including low labor mobility and inefficient levels of productivity in Japanese society as a whole. These challenges involve a complex mixture of factors, including several aspects of what we might call the Japanese mentality. Make no mistake: the situation is serious indeed. If things continue as they are, there is a risk that universities may soon not be able to perform their role as research institutions at all. Alarmist? Time will tell. The next 10 years are crucial. The very future of Japanese science lies in the balance.

(Originally published in Japanese on May 25, 2017.)

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