3 Reasons behind Japan's deteriorating scientific landscape

3 Reasons behind Japan's deteriorating scientific landscape

Scientific research lies at the core of Japan, the third-largest economy in the world. As Japan’s economy matured around the 1980s, it began investing heavily in science and technology and soon emerged as one of the dominant nations in terms of research and innovation. Since 2000, Japanese researchers have won 17 Nobel Prizes in the sciences, which only emphasizes the nation’s scientific prowess. However, in the recent years, Japan has been struggling to maintain its leadership position in research. A combination of several factors has led to the decline of research in the country, leaving research leaders in the country anxious about their future.  

The downward trend in Japan’s research output is evident from the Nature Index 2017 report that also combined data from Clarivate Analytics' Web of Science (WOS) and Elsevier's Scopus database. Here are some significant observations from the report:

  • Between 2012 and 2016, the share of high-quality papers from Japan dropped by 6%.
  • While the total number of articles in the Scopus database increased by 80% between 2005 and 2015, Japan's global output went down from 7.4% to 4.7%.
  • The number of publications by Japanese researchers has decreased even in areas that have typically been the pillars of Japanese research, such as materials science and engineering (a drop by around 10%) and computer science (a drop by 37.7%).   
  • The average citation impact of the country’s scholarly output has seen stagnation. Between 2005 and 2015, the growth has increased marginally from an average of 1.3% to 1.5%.         

While the emerging economies like China and developed nations such as the U.S. and South Korea are making headway in research, Japan in comparison is seeing a decline. Japanese academics are viewing this as a reflection of deterioration of the country’s research landscape. Anders Karlsson, Vice President, Academic Relations at Elsevier, agrees that, “Japan has declined in its global share and thus in global impact.” Let us look at some of the prime concerns and challenges facing research in Japan.   

Weakened science policies are affecting research output

The success of any country’s research sector depends largely on its science policies. Unfortunately, Japan's science policies toward the universities have been unsupportive. According to an editorial published in Japan Times, half of Japan's scientific output comes from papers produced by national universities. The same source discloses that government grants to national universities have dropped by 10% in 2017 as compared to 2004. Resultantly, there has been stagnation in the universities’ research output.

The drop in budget is not limited to university grants. Rather an overall drop in research expenditure by 5% since 2012 has been observed. In October 2017, when the snap election was announced by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan’s research leaders in the nation pointed out that science was barely focused on in Abe’s campaign since he came to power five years back. Moreover, the government has increased the amount of competitive funds wherein funds are allocated on a project-by-project basis. Therefore, researchers spend more time in competing for funds than doing actual research work.  

Moreover, the lack of focus on basic research has also been largely responsible for the country’s underperformance in science. Basic research is invaluable for innovation and knowledge expansion; it is often the groundwork for major discoveries. “The government should focus on the development of basic research to supply seeds or ideas to applied sciences,” says Takashi Onishi, President of Toyohashi University of Technology and a former president of the Science Council of Japan.    

Lack of career opportunities for young Japanese researchers

Cuts in science budget can have far-reaching impact. The lack of funding has narrowed the career opportunities for early career researchers in Japan. With fewer permanent positions, universities are unable to offer stable and permanent jobs to researchers.

Additionally, the narrow pipeline of funding makes it challenging for young researchers to independently begin their own lab. Nakano Tōru, professor in the Graduate School of Frontier Bioscience at Osaka University, says, “If these young researchers do go independent, some harsh realities lie in wait. And this acts as a powerful disincentive, holding them back from breaking out on their own.”

Further, Nakano stresses the importance of having a tenure-track system wherein young researchers are offered a tenured position after they work on a fixed-term employment contract. Such a system is widely used in the U.S. Although this system is not without flaws, it might motivate more researchers to stay in academia.  

Decline in domestic workforce

One of the biggest and most relevant concerns of Japanese researchers is that the aging population of the nation means lesser domestic workforce to keep up the pace of scientific advancement. This is also one of factors preventing the government from investing heavily in science. “The Japanese government budget is constrained by the cost of an ageing society,” states Yasuhiro Iye, executive director of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science.

The Japanese government needs to design science policies that can overcome this problem. Michinari Hamaguchi, head of the Japan Science and Technology Agency in Tokyo, believes that it is crucial to encourage researchers and students from other countries to come to Japan and give a boost to the research being conducted.

The steps Japan is taking to overcome the challenges

Make no mistake: the situation is serious indeed,” Nakano warns. Taking into the consideration the gravity of the state of affairs, the Japanese government is taking steps to support the top Japanese institutions in their research projects. Reforms have been introduced to categorize institutions based on their focus on teaching and research, which will decide the funding share they receive. Further, there are plans to increase the number of university researchers under the age of 40 by 10% in the next three years. The next few years are crucial for Japan as the country needs to address the deep-rooted problems plaguing its research, and once again mark itself as one of the global leaders in science.  

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