Japanese Government’s Science Push: Help or Hindrance?


The December 2018 Nobel Prize award ceremony in Stockholm was closely watched in Japan, as one of the recipients was Honjo Tasuku of Kyoto University, who received the prize in medicine for a cancer therapy called the checkpoint inhibitor. He was Japan’s eighteenth laureate in the sciences over the past 30 years, but given the state of natural science research and trends in science and technology policy, the chances of continued success appear rather slim.

Poor Research Environment

Japan experienced a dry spell of 13 years in science-related Nobel laureates after Tonegawa Susumu was awarded the prize for physiology or medicine in 1987. The spell was broken by Shirakawa Hideki, who won the chemistry award in 2000, and the table below lists the years when subsequent winners (including Japanese-born laureates) announced the research findings for which they were honored.

Year of Announcement of Nobel-Winning Research (Post-2000 Winners)

1960s Nambu Yōichirō, 1960 (2008)
Shimomura Osamu, 1962 (2008)
1970s Kobayashi Makoto and Masukawa Toshihide, 1973 (2008)
Shirakawa Hideki, 1977 (2000)
Negishi Eiichi, 1977 (2010)
Suzuki Akira, 1979 (2010)
Ōmura Satoshi, 1979 (2015)
1980s Noyori Ryōji, 1980 (2001)
Tanaka Kōichi, 1985 (2002)
Akasaki Isamu and Amano Hiroshi, 1986 (2014)
Koshiba Masatoshi, 1987 (2002)
1990s Ōsumi Yoshinori, 1992 (2016)
Honjo Tasuku, 1992 (2018)
Nakamura Shūji, 1993 (2014)
Kajita Takaaki, 1998 (2015)
2000s Yamanaka Shin’ya, 2006 (2012)

(Years in parentheses indicate date of prize)

Two laureates conducted their research in the 1960s, six in the 1970s, five in the 1980s, four in the 1990s, and one in the 2000s, and most were not recognized by the Nobel Committee until more than 20 years after the publication of their pioneering work. This suggests that recognition of the full value of scientific research does not come quickly. A conspicuous exception to this rule was Yamanaka Shin’ya, who was awarded the prize in 2012, just six years after his discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells.

Be that as it may, the achievements of Japanese scientists are rather surprising, given that the environment for natural science research was inferior to those enjoyed by their colleagues in the United States and other industrially advanced countries in the 1970s and the 1980s. Even by global standards, their research was unique, unorthodox, and deeply consequential. Indeed, there were many other eminent Japanese-born scientists whose work went unrecognized by the Nobel Committee, including virologist Hanafusa Hidesaburō, who demonstrated how viruses can cause cancer; cell biologist Masui Yoshio, who successfully isolated materials that control the process of cell division; and neuroscientist Numa Shōsaku, who conducted pioneering research on neurotransmitters and ion channels.

Belated Launch of a Basic S&T Policy

Scientific research continues to occupy an important place in Japanese policy, perhaps owing to the perception that the country’s underdeveloped technologies were a factor in its defeat in World War II. In the White Paper on Science and Technology 1995: 50 Years of Postwar Science and Technology in Japan, issued half a century after the end of the war, the evolving focus of the nation’s policy priorities was summed up as follows:

(From War’s End Through) the 1950s: Science and Technology for Survival and Reconstruction and Recovery of Economy

The 1960s: Science and Technology for Economic Growth and Expanding the Socioeconomic Infrastructure

The 1970s: Remedying the Strains of Rapid Growth and Responding to a Changing World

The 1980s: Emphasizing Creative Science and Technology and Responding to New Issues

The 1990s: Striving to Become a Nation Based on Creative Science and Technology

Seen at a glance, the shifting focus of science and technology policy is quite interesting. The goal of becoming a “nation based on science and technology” had already appeared in the 1980 white paper, but this aim was pursued in piecemeal fashion by the various ministries until the early 1990s, when a comprehensive, government-wide policy was formulated.

It was in 1995 that a policy of striving to become a nation based on creative science and technology, thereby creating value and ensuring an affluent society, was outlined. This was also the year when the Science and Technology Basic Law was enacted, launching efforts to advance a coordinated science and technology policy. Five-year “S&T Basic Plans” to identify directions for the coming decade began being drawn up the following year. 

The basic plans spelled out such policy objectives as the employment of scientists at national research institutes on a fixed-term basis, support for 10,000 postdocs, and closer exchange and collaboration among industry, academia, and government. In a lecture in 2004, former Liberal Democratic Party Diet member Omi Kōji—a cabinet minister in charge of S&T policy during the enactment of the Science and Technology Basic Law—pointed out that as a small, resource-poor nation, Japan had no choice but to restore the competitiveness of its science and technology innovations to remain a global leader in the twenty-first century.

The second S&T Basic Plan, adopted in 2000, called for prioritized research and development to address key national and social issues, identifying four areas for strategic investment in advancing the country’s basic S&T policy, namely, life sciences, information and communication technologies, environmental sciences, and nanotechnology and materials. R&D resources were subsequently targeted, through selection and concentration, to these priority areas.

In 2001, the Council for Science and Technology Policy was established to enable a top-down approach to the drafting and general coordination of S&T policy under the chairmanship of the prime minister. Its name was changed to the Council for Science, Technology, and Innovation in 2014, reflecting its emphasis on tackling more practical challenges. The current fifth Basic Plan covers the period through 2020, and while it contains such buzzwords as “society 5.0,” its main thrust remains largely unchanged from previous basic plans.

A Counterproductive S&T Policy

Paralleling the advancement of an S&T policy were sweeping reforms of higher education, notably of national universities.

It goes without saying that core S&T activities are undertaken at national universities, as clearly revealed by the affiliations of natural science Nobel laureates to date. Such universities have focused on basic research, rather than applied research or technological development, and have been tasked with discovering and nurturing the “seeds” with high potential for growth.

University education reform, meanwhile, was launched in the 1990s. In 1991, the Standards for the Establishment of Universities were revised to introduce greater flexibility in the curriculum, such as by abolishing the requirement for subject areas to be clearly delineated. Greater emphasis was placed on specialized subjects, rather than general education, prompting criticism that liberal arts education was being neglected. Graduate education was prioritized; instead of attaching graduate schools to four-year colleges, undergraduate divisions were now regarded as extensions of graduate-level research universities. The national universities welcomed these moves, enabling them to increase the number of graduate students and to claim bigger research and administrative expenses.

As a result, the number of graduate students jumped from 98,000 in 1991 to over 200,000 in 2000, but there was not an accompanying rise in the overall number of teaching personnel; there were more professors and assistant professors, but many universities were forced to operate with fewer teaching assistants and lecturers. This not only suggests that quantity came at the price of quality but resulted in a glut of doctorates unable to find employment. The support promised for 10,000 postdocs in the Basic Plan, ironically, largely went to helping such overqualified graduates make ends meet.

In 2004, national universities were incorporated as independent legal persons, promising greater autonomy from education authorities. Universities were still entitled to necessary funds from the government, however, while they proceeded with realignment and integration, introduced private-sector management approaches, and prioritized the allocation of operating expenses based on external evaluation. The expected benefits of incorporation, though, have yet to materialize.

Some of the problems that have emerged include funding gaps not only among different universities but also between departments of a single university. Schools are now allowed to tap a broader range of revenue sources, but a culture of donation has yet to take hold in Japan, and most universities still rely on the government for administrative expenses provided uniformly to all schools and on peer-reviewed research grants. There is also a tendency for external evaluations to be little more than formalities.

Unfortunately for Japan’s scientists, the more the government tries to strengthen S&T policy and promote higher education reform, the less room they seem to have to pursue their research interests. Government efforts to promote scientific research, ironically, only appear to deprive researchers of their freedom and enthusiasm.

Growing Acrimony

Perhaps as a consequence, the quality of Japan’s research has been deteriorating in recent years. In a six-page article titled, “What Price Will Science Pay for Austerity?” the March 2017 issue of Nature magazine bewailed Japan’s dwindling science budget, pointing out that Japan’s share of papers in the Scopus abstract and citation database “fell by more than a third over 10 years”; that “early-career researchers face an uncertain future, as universities reduce the number of permanent staff positions and shunt more faculty into short-term contracts”; and that the Japanese government reduced funding by “cutting the management expenses grant programme by about 1% a year between 2004 and 2014.”

According to November 2018 news reports, Kyoto University President Yamagiwa Juichi, who is also president of the Japan Association of National Universities, was at loggerheads with Kanda Masato, deputy director general of the Ministry of Finance’s Budget Bureau, over allocations of the management expense grants. The two reportedly locked horns over a ministry proposal to use weighted allocation methods in disbursing \100 billion—around 10% of such grants—depending on the extent to which each university had advanced reforms.

The uneven allocation began in 2016 with a much smaller share—just ¥30 billion—of total grants, but the percentage has been rising, and some suspect that the entire amount may one day be distributed on a competitive basis. Total grants have been slashed by 1% a year since 2004, resulting in a reduction of approximately ¥140 billion to ¥1.1 trillion. If 10% of this total is to be disbursed on a weighted basis, therefore, some national universities could see their allotment decline by a significant margin.

The Finance Ministry is inclined to encourage management efficiency and competition among national universities—which were able until recently to focus on developing human resources and nurturing S&T seedlings—due to a dwindling national population and mounting pressures for fiscal consolidation.

Deputy Director General Kanda reportedly suggested to Kyoto University’s Yamagiwa that access to abundant funds without competition and rigid, narrow-minded university management were factors behind the dwindling global share of academic papers. He encouraged strengthening universities’ financial footing by diversifying revenue sources, building a high-productivity research system, making social contributions commensurate to the tax money universities were receiving, and establishing an evaluation system conducive to fairer allocations of government funds.

Yamagiwa countered that that the incorporation of national universities and cuts in management expense grants were a mistake and that the institutions were being made to bear the brunt of the government’s fiscal austerity policy. Introducing competition for those grants resulted only in the lowering of research standards, he added, as scholars are forced to “waste their time” in seeking to boost the competitiveness of their universities. Such complaints have been voiced by many other researchers in Japan.

Universities must continue to compete for research and administrative grants while also earning high marks under such programs as the Global Centers of Excellence and World Premier International Research Center Initiative, which are likely to affect their rankings and future growth.

The national universities are, again this year, advocating uniform disbursements of management grants and subsidies for the upgrading of facilities, but financial authorities are unlikely to accommodate such requests.

Many More Laureates to Come?

The second S&T Basic Plan covering the period 2001–05 cites as its goal the “creation of wisdom” by “publishing a profusion of excellent papers that match investment, by increasing the percentage of internationally renowned papers, . . . and by producing just as many Nobel Prize winning scientists as the most technologically advanced European countries . . . (as many as 30 Nobel laureates in the last 50 years).”

This goal has not appeared in subsequent basic plans, but should Japan continue to produce laureates at the same pace as the past three decades, it may indeed be attainable. Given that the Nobel Prize is awarded for pioneering work that no one had ever considered, though, research in such fields is often a gamble with a high probability of failure. Honjo Tasuku’s discovery of PD-1, too, was at first inconclusive, but he persisted in his study of this “interesting” protein for more than 20 years until he achieved a breakthrough in cancer immunotherapy. His original research into immunoglobulin class switching, meanwhile, is as yet unfinished.

A member of the Council for Science, Technology, and Innovation was heard to remark that basic research, in recent years, can often lead immediately to business opportunities. Such a comment by someone responsible for drafting Japan’s science and technology policy exposes how ignorant policymakers tend to be of the temporal realities and needs of Nobel-winning research.

(Originally published in Japanese on January 24, 2019. Banner photo: Honjo Tasuku of Kyoto University receives a medal and certificate for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine during the award ceremony on December 10, 2018, in Stockholm, Sweden. © Jiji.)

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