Continued support is key to reshaping basic research in Japan

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The three Nobel Prizes in Natural Sciences have been announced, but no Japanese scientist has won a prize after last year’s. In recent years, there have been concerns about the decline of Japan’s research capabilities. Continued support for basic science is needed.

Last year, Syukuro Manabe of Princeton University in the United States won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his pioneering research in predicting global warming. Since 2000, researchers of Japanese origin have won Nobel Prizes: 20, including Manabe, an American citizen, have won the prize in the scientific field.

However, this reflects the fact that the achievements of past research are now valued. There have been many cases where research by people in their mid-40s has resulted in Nobel Prizes 20 to 30 years later. The average age of Japanese winners is 65.

In terms of the number of research papers frequently cited by scholars from various countries, Japan has noticeably lost ground. If the pool of young researchers shrinks in the future, the pace of Nobel prizes won by Japanese scientists could slow.

As science progressed, the fields considered for the Nobel Prize also changed. Climate science, for which Manabe won his Nobel Prize, had not previously been considered for the physics prize. It is also unusual that Svante Paabo won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine this year for his research in the field of paleoanthropology.

The development of new research areas is flourishing, but Japan is said to be weak in cross-disciplinary work. It is important to face challenges without being bound by old frameworks.

All over the world, the best scientists, regardless of their nationality, move to top-notch research institutions in various countries. Amid such a global trend, there are fears that Japan – home to many introverted scholars with no overseas experience – is being left behind.

Paabo, a Swedish national, belongs to a German research institution, but he is also an adjunct professor at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST). He praised OIST, which was established by the Japanese government, for investing long-term research funds even in time-consuming research.

However, since the national universities were transformed into incorporated institutions in 2004, the government has reduced grants for running costs, which form the basis of university management funding. Young researchers are increasingly strained due to reduced personnel costs and the increase in the number of precarious fixed-term jobs.

To overcome the deteriorating research environment, the government has set up a university fund of about 10 trillion yen and will start supporting more universities in the future. Many said it was the last chance for a revival.

The influence of the initiative is already visible: Tokyo Institute of Technology and Tokyo Medical and Dental University have started merger talks to apply for the fund. It is hoped that the government and university leaders will consider effective ways to use the funds and devise strategies to raise the level of research capacity.

(From Yomiuri Shimbun, October 8, 2022)

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