Japan tries—again—to revitalize its research

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Alarmed by the declining stature of its universities, Japan is planning to shower up to $2.3 billion a year on a handful of schools in hopes of boosting their prominence. The scheme was approved by the Japanese legislature on 18 May, although many details, including how to pick the favored universities, are still up in the air. But the move, under study for more than a year, has rekindled a debate among academics over how to reverse Japan’s sinking research fortunes. Several previous schemes have yielded mixed results.

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

But Guojun Sheng, a Chinese developmental biologist at Kumamoto University in Japan, is skeptical. “I am not very optimistic that this [plan] will do much 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 address fundamental problems at Japanese research institutes: too few women and foreign scientists, a fear of change, and lack of support for young scientists. To get better results, “Japan has to change its research culture,” he says.

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Concerns over Japan’s fading scientific clout have been growing for years. The nation’s $167 billion in spending on R&D in 2020 was topped only by the United States and China, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). But research productivity “is markedly below [Group of 20 countries] average and citation impact is low,” Clarivate’s Institute for Scientific Information concluded in its 2021 annual report on G-20 research activities. An August 2021 analysis by Japan’s National Institute of 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 through 1999, then dropped to fifth between 2007 and 2009 and to 10th in 2017 to 2019 (see graphic). The drop is partly the result of the spectacular rise of China, which was not even in the top 10 in the 1990s and is now at first place. But Canada, France, Italy Australia, and India surpassed Japan as well.


What really got the attention of politicians, however, is Japan’s lackluster 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 dropped from 23rd place in 2015 to a tie for 35th place this year.

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

The program is the latest of several attempts by the government to rejuvenate Japan’s research efforts. In 2007, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) launched a World Premier International Research Center Initiative (WPI) “to attract outstanding scientists to Japan” and spur 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 forerunner of CSTI when the WPI was planned. The 14 WPI institutes that resulted have higher proportions of internationally recruited scientists than the universities they are attached to, and two WPI directors are non-Japanese. But they have not had the reforming influence on their host universities that MEXT hoped for, Harayama says.

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Declining influence

In the late 1990s, Japan ranked fourth in terms of its share of the 10% most-cited research papers. It dropped to 10th place by the end of the 2010s. The United States’s share dropped as well, while China’s scientific clout soared. (Credit for papers by multinational teams was split between countries.)


In 2015, Japan formed the Agency for Medical Research and Development to jump-start 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-early disease prediction and intervention,” and “a sustainable global food supply.”

The size and sprawling agendas of these top-down programs blur lines of responsibility and make performances difficult to evaluate, 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, money available through MEXT’s competitively reviewed Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research, which Suda says is particularly important for younger researchers, has stagnated, hovering just below $2 billion a year for the past decade. What’s worse, Japanese universities, working with fixed block funding, “stopped giving [permanent] positions to young scientists,” says Hitoshi Murayama, a theoretical physicist at the University of California, Berkeley. And those lucky enough to find appointments rarely get start-up funding, leaving them “at the mercy of senior professors in terms of resources,” he adds. “The lack of independence makes it difficult for them to really kick-start their own research,” says Murayama, who was the founding director of the University of Tokyo’s Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe, one of the WPI institutes.

Such dismal career prospects are driving people away from academia. The number of students going for doctorates immediately after earning a master’s degree has dropped 25% in 20 years, according to MEXT data. And some who do earn Ph.D.s are looking abroad for careers. Developmental biologist Kinya Ota, for example, found a position at Academia Sinica in Taiwan when nearing the end of a fixed-term appointment at a lab affiliated with RIKEN, Japan’s network of national laboratories. In Taiwan, Ota got support to set up his lab from the start and, most important, “I could decide my own research direction.” Ten years on, he has a permanent position and leads a small team. Tellingly, Ota says he is getting increasing numbers of queries about working overseas from younger Japanese scientists.

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

Indeed, MEXT is studying proposals to scale up support for regional universities, provide richer stipends for graduate students, and expand opportunities for women, says Takuya Saito, director of human resources policy for the ministry. The government is aware the new plan won’t fix all problems in Japanese research, Saito says: “The improvement of research capabilities in Japan as a whole is based on the recognition that support for several universities alone will not be enough.”


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