Japan’s Troubling Shortage of New Scientific Researchers

Science Technology

Scientific research programs at Japanese universities are losing momentum, and the number of graduate students pursuing doctorates is declining. Most postdoctoral researchers end up in poorly compensated nontenured posts at university laboratories. The government’s moves to promote innovation, including its tenure track system for young scientists, have little chance of succeeding unless universities reform themselves radically.

Earlier this year it came to light that a researcher at Kyoto University’s Center for iPS Cell Research and Application had published a paper containing fabricated data. The researcher in question was a nontenured assistant professor, and some reports suggested that he had resorted to fabrication because he was under pressure to produce results before the end of his fixed term of employment. But virtually no nontenured researchers resort to such malfeasance. So it is incorrect to cite this researcher’s employment status as the main reason for his fabrication of data.

That said, the fact that more than 60% of Japan’s young university researchers are employed under fixed-term contracts is unfortunate. And this may be one of the reasons for the ongoing decline in the share of graduate students completing master’s degree programs who go on to pursue doctorates.

What should be done to address this situation? The first step that comes to mind is to provide greater financial support to graduate students, especially those in doctoral programs. Grad students at universities in the West ordinarily receive stipends. In Japan, some are able to earn modest pay for work as research assistants—but this option is only available at deep-pocketed universities or research institutes that have won ample amounts of competitive funding based on screening of their research proposals. And the pay is not enough to live on.

I cannot say, however, that I wholeheartedly support the idea of using taxpayers’ money to pay every grad student pursuing doctoral studies. Many universities have too few doctoral students to fill their assigned enrollment levels, and they are under strong pressure to recruit more. As a result, admission standards may be too relaxed to assure that all those recruited are fully qualified.

A Fellowship Program for Which Few Researchers Qualify

The Japan Society for the Promotion of Science has a program providing research fellowships for young scientists. “Awarded to excellent young researchers,” as the society explains, “these fellowships offer the fellows an opportunity to focus on a freely chosen research topic based on their own innovative ideas. Ultimately, the program works to foster and secure excellent researchers.“ Fellows enrolled in doctoral courses are granted monthly stipends of ¥200,000. Though this may not be enough to cover all their expenses, it seems like an appropriate level of financial support.

In the 2016 academic year (April 2016 to March 2017), approximately 15,000 graduate students entered doctoral programs. Of these, 3,341 applied for JSPS fellowships, and 727 were selected. The selection rate for those who applied thus came to 21.8%. In other words, only about a fifth of the applications were approved. And the newly selected fellows accounted for less than 5% of the total number of new doctoral students.

The most straightforward way of addressing the shortage of students in doctoral programs would be to increase the approval rate for fellowship applicants, though opinions may differ on how great the increase should be. But in fact, both the numbers and shares of those selected have been decreasing ever since 2013. That year 815 were selected, and the approval rate was 25.8%. But as of 2017 the respective figures had fallen to 692 and 20.7%. Budgetary constraints are probably a factor, but clearly the trend is running counter to the goal of fostering young researchers.

Even if grad students manage to make it through their doctoral program years, the biggest hurdle still lies ahead of them, namely, finding employment. Fewer than 70% of them are hired on completion of their doctoral studies, a share that is lower than that for those who enter the job market upon winning bachelor’s or master’s degrees.

Though the shares differ from field to field, of those who do get jobs about half find posts in academia, and a quarter are hired by private-sector corporations. According to a 2017 survey by the National Institute of Science and Technology Policy, only about a tenth of the responding corporations hire people with doctorates every year. So universities and other academic institutions continue to be the main source of employment for those who earn doctorates.

The Dearth of Tenured Posts

Within universities, meanwhile, the employment environment has been deteriorating. Regular tenured posts have been decreasing, while fixed-term contract positions have been on the rise. Cabinet Office statistics reveal that the percentage of researchers under 40 holding tenured posts fell from 23.4% in the 2007 academic year to 15.1% in 2016. The decline was even sharper among those under 35, for whom the tenured share fell by almost half, from 8.5% to 4.5%. Meanwhile, the percentage of the under-40 cohort holding fixed-term posts as instructors rose from 39% to 64%.

In view of the constraints on budget appropriations for national universities, there is no prospect for an increase in their numbers of tenured positions. Under such conditions, the only way to raise the share of young faculty members is by reducing the number of older people in tenured posts. But hardly any national universities have systems in place to actively implement such a policy. So the situation seems sure to remain as it is or get steadily worse.

In the past, those with doctorates could normally expect to get fixed-term postdoctoral positions and then move on to tenured posts. But the prospects for such advancement are now poor. And since younger students can see how difficult it has become for postdocs to secure tenured posts, it is only natural that they are hesitating to enter doctoral programs.

Proposing a Seven-Year Employment Term

The length of the employment term for nontenured researchers varies, but it is rarely longer than five years, partly because of the time limits for completion of projects. Five years may seem like a long enough period, but as scientific research becomes more advanced, the length of time required to complete a single study is tending to increase. In my field, life sciences, it is quite common for it to take four or five years to produce a reasonable level of results from a particular study. And since the postdocs must look for new posts as the end of their employment term approaches, they inevitably become distracted and cannot devote all their attention to their research work in their final year.

If the fixed term were lengthened to at least seven years, researchers ought to be able to concentrate fully on completing their studies. Needless to say, not all studies will produce satisfactory results. But people who have had seven years to conduct research after completing their doctoral studies will already be in their mid-thirties. If they have reached that age without achieving a certain level of success in their research, it is probably time for them to call it quits.

Though some sort of safety net will be required for the postdocs who fail to make the grade as scientific researchers, the question is what degree of security should be provided for these academics. In other fields, such as music and sports, many young hopefuls fall by the wayside. Meanwhile, as I noted above, it is now relatively easy to gain admission to doctoral programs because of the shortage of candidates to fill the available places. Should the field of scientific research be singled out as the target of a robust safety net for those who fail in their pursuit of careers as professionals? It seems doubtful to me that a public consensus can be achieved in favor of using tax revenues for this purpose.

The Tenure Track System: Giving Researchers Time to Get Up to Speed

It is not easy to say what level of results should be required from researchers in order to qualify as professionals. But one yardstick is whether their work is good enough for them to have their own laboratories.

The “principal investigator” who heads a lab must be able to plan and implement research projects, write papers for publication, raise research funds, and recruit skilled personnel. The abilities required are much broader than those demanded of a postgrad researcher. And many of those who did well as grad students and postdocs prove unable to function as PIs running their own labs.

These failures are tragic not just for the lab head but also for the lab’s personnel. In order to avoid such outcomes and encourage the development of young PIs, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) is promoting the adoption of a “tenure track system.” Under this system, young researchers employed on the basis of a fair and transparent selection process can gain experience conducting research independently on a fixed-term basis prior to being screened for tenured employment.

The tenure track system gives young researchers time to get up to speed, providing them the prospect of a tenured post if they prove themselves capable of independent work. It is an excellent system and has long been used in the West. But it will not function properly unless other relevant systems are configured to mesh with it.

The Crucial Importance of Radical Reform

I previously served as administrator of the tenure track system for life sciences at Osaka University. Based on this experience, I strongly feel that this system cannot take root in Japan, at least in the life sciences field, unless we radically reform the way our universities operate. This includes tackling the rigidities in the operating setup, as seen in the inefficient allocation of resources among education, research, and administration. Overcoming the hurdles is a daunting task. (See my previous article, “The Crisis Facing Japanese Scientific Research.”)

As part of its policy for scientific and technological innovation, MEXT has noted the need to reform the career system for young scientists, make good use of various types of human resources, and promote mobility in employment. Though everybody realizes that these are key priorities, unfortunately there is little sign of progress toward their implementation. Further deliberations will probably produce the same conclusions. What we need now is not more talk but bold action. Otherwise Japan’s universities will continue to lose speed, and there will be no hope of achieving the creation of innovation that the government is seeking to promote. Some may say I am too pessimistic. But I believe that it is the groundless optimism with which universities have been glossing over their problems that has left them in their current dismal state.

 (Originally published in Japanese on March 14, 2018. Banner photo: Researchers at the Center for iPS Cell Research and Application, Kyoto University, on the morning following the announcement that Yamanaka Shin’ya, director of the center, had won the 2012 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. Note: The photo, taken on October 9, 2012 has no direct connection to the content of this article. © Jiji.)

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