Japan is trying — again — to revitalize its research | Science

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Alarmed by the declining stature of its universities, Japan plans to pour up to $2.3 billion a year on a handful of schools in hopes of boosting their notoriety. The program was approved by the Japanese legislature on May 18, although many details, including how to choose preferred universities, are still up in the air. But the decision, under consideration for more than a year, has reignited a debate among academics about how to reverse the fortunes of Japanese research. Several previous diets have had mixed results.

The new plan “aims to provide promising young scholars with the research environment that the world’s top universities are expected to provide, greatly enhance international collaborations, and promote brain circulation both domestically and internationally,” says Takahiro. Ueyama, science policy specialist. to the Council for Science, Technology and Innovation (CSTI), Japan’s highest scientific advisory body, which was heavily involved in the development of the program.

But Guojun Sheng, a Chinese developmental biologist at Kumamoto University in Japan, is skeptical. “I’m not very optimistic [plan] will do a lot to curb the slide in the ranking of Japanese research activities or international competitiveness,” he says. Sheng, who previously studied and worked in China, the United States and the United Kingdom, says the new plan does not solve the fundamental problems of Japanese research institutes: too few women and foreign scientists, fear of change and the lack of support for young scientists. To achieve better results, “Japan needs to change its research culture,” he says.

Concerns about Japan’s scientific weight loss have been growing for years. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the country’s $167 billion in R&D spending in 2020 was only surpassed by the United States and China. But research productivity “is significantly lower [Group of 20 countries] medium and citation impact is low,” the Clarivate Institute for Science Information concluded in its 2021 annual report on G-20 research activities. An August 2021 analysis from Japan’s National Institute for Science and Technology Policy (NISTEP) showed that Japan ranked fourth in its share of papers in the top 10% by number of citations from 1997 to 1999. , then fell to fifth between 2007 and 2009 and to 10th from 2017 to 2019 (see chart). The fall is partly the result of the dramatic rise of China, which was not even in the top 10 in the 1990s and now occupies the top spot. But Canada, France, Italy, Australia and India have also overtaken Japan.

What has really caught the attention of politicians, however, is Japan’s poor performance in university rankings, says Yuko Harayama, a science policy expert who advises Tohoku University. The University of Tokyo is the only Japanese school in the Times Higher Education world university rankings, for example, and it went from 23rd place in 2015 to a tie for 35th place this year.

Now the government is pursuing a costly solution: an International Excellence University program, funded by an endowment of up to 10 trillion yen ($78 billion). The fund could generate $2.3 billion a year to be shared among five to seven elite schools. From the end of this year, universities will compete for inclusion in the program by presenting plans for institutional reforms and greater research efforts. The money could start flowing in 2024. (Some of the funds will cover the living and research costs of doctoral students, not only in selected schools but in all universities.)

The program is the latest of several government attempts to rejuvenate Japan’s research efforts. In 2007, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) launched a global International Research Centers (WPI) initiative “to attract outstanding scientists to Japan” and stimulate other reforms. The idea was to create “something like an island within a university with a completely different way of managing research activities,” says Harayama, a member of the CSTI precursor when the WPI was planned. The resulting 14 WPI institutes have higher proportions of internationally recruited scientists than the universities to which they are attached, and two directors of WPI are non-Japanese. But they haven’t had the reforming influence on their host universities that MEXT hoped for, Harayama says.

Diminishing influence

At the end of the 1990s, Japan ranked fourth in terms of the share of the 10% most cited research papers. It fell to 10th place in the late 2010s. The United States’ share also fell, while China’s scientific influence soared. (Credit for articles written by multinational teams has been split between countries.)

Graphic: K. FRANKLIN/SCIENCE; DATA: POLICY OF THE NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF SCIENCES AND TECHNOLOGIES

In 2015, Japan established the Agency for Medical Research and Development to revive biomedical research, with an annual budget of $980 million. And a Moonshot research and development program, launched in 2019, is disbursing $780 million over 5 years to support “high-risk, high-impact R&D” focused on seven broad goals, including “ultra-prediction and intervention.” diseases” and “a sustainable global food supply.

The size and sprawling programs of these top-down programs blur responsibilities and make performance difficult to assess, says Toshio Suda, a Japanese stem cell scientist at the National University of Singapore. They also emphasize applications more than basic research, he says.

Meanwhile, the money available through MEXT Scientific Research Grants, which Suda says is especially important for young researchers, has stagnated, hovering at just under $2 billion a year for the past decade. . Worse still, Japanese universities, working with flat-rate funding, “stopped giving [permanent] positions for young scientists,” says Hitoshi Murayama, a theoretical physicist at the University of California, Berkeley. And those lucky enough to find nominations rarely get seed funding, leaving them “at the mercy of senior faculty for resources,” he adds. “The lack of independence makes it difficult for them to really initiate their own research,” says Murayama, who was the founding director of the Kavli Institute for Physics and Mathematics of the Universe at the University of Tokyo, the one of the WPI institutes.

These bleak career prospects drive people away from academia. The number of doctoral students immediately after obtaining a master’s degree has fallen by 25% in 20 years, according to data from MEXT. And some who obtain a doctorate seek careers abroad. Developmental biologist Kinya Ota, for example, found a position at Academia Sinica in Taiwan as he neared the end of a fixed-term contract at a laboratory affiliated with RIKEN, Japan’s network of national laboratories. In Taiwan, Ota got support to set up her lab from the start and, more importantly, “I could decide my own research direction.” Ten years later, he is in a permanent position and leads a small team. Tellingly, Ota says he receives more and more questions about working abroad from young Japanese scientists.

Rather than setting up top-down megaprograms, Sheng thinks Japan should encourage bottom-up initiatives from individual universities and institutes that could make better use of resources. He also says that greater diversity in the labs, in terms of nationality and gender, would help generate new research ideas. Women make up only 17% of Japan’s research workforce, well below the OECD average of 40%.

Indeed, MEXT is considering proposals to step up support for regional universities, provide richer stipends for graduate students and expand opportunities for women, said Takuya Saito, director of human resources policy at the ministry. The government is aware that the new plan will not solve all of Japan’s research problems, says Saito: “Improving research capabilities in Japan as a whole is based on recognizing that supporting multiple universities will not be enough for it. only.”

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