Science labs are the new front line of competition with a rising China

REUTERS/Tingshu Wang/File Photo
People walk past the headquarters of New Oriental Education & Technology in Beijing, China August 23, 2021.

With China rising in science and technology research, Japan’s decline has become clear. The Japanese government needs to rebuild the domestic research system as soon as possible.

China has outstripped the United States for the first time to rank No. 1 in terms of academic papers in natural science fields cited by researchers around the world, according to a research institute affiliated with the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry. When the results are broken down into specific fields, China ranks No. 1 in five of them, including materials science and engineering.

A large number of cited papers is said to indicate a country’s high quality of research. This is probably a result of the Chinese government intensively having invested a huge amount of funds for research and developed human resources for the sake of its national prestige.

China has 2.1 million researchers, more than any other country. In 2019, the public and private sectors spent a total of ¥54.5 trillion on research and development, more than double the amount spent in 2009.

Over the next five years, China intends to further increase its research funds to strengthen the development of cutting-edge technologies, such as artificial intelligence and quantum technology. China’s dominance is expected to continue for the time being.

Meanwhile, Japan fell from ninth to 10th after being overtaken by India. A slump in research could lead to a decline in Japan’s industrial competitiveness. The government should take this result seriously.

In 2019, Japan spent ¥18 trillion on research and development, including private research, of which only ¥2.1 trillion was allocated to universities. While many major developed countries are trying to increase the amount of funds for research and development, the amount of such funds in Japan has instead decreased slightly compared to 20 years ago.

In its basic policy on science and technology for the next five years, the Japanese government has set a goal of ¥120 trillion in research and development funding by the public and private sectors. It is vital to steadily facilitate efforts to make a plan to realize the goal.

There is also an urgent need to improve the treatment of young researchers. A growing number of posts have terms of only several years, making their employment unstable. Some young researchers are said to have given up their research because they are unable to make plans for their future, even regarding marriage.

The government plans to establish a system to provide employment experience at private companies to support students in doctoral courses. It is necessary to create a system that enables them to work stably.

China has been actively inviting outstanding researchers from abroad by offering lavish research funds. Some researchers go to China because they cannot get jobs in Japan. There are concerns that advanced technologies could be compromised and used for military purposes. It is essential to create an environment in which researchers can devote themselves to research in Japan.

In recent years, Japanese have been awarded Nobel Prizes one after another, but this just means their past achievements have been publicly honored. It is feared that Japan’s research activities may dwindle in the future under the current circumstances.

U.S. President Joe Biden has announced an increase in his country’s research and development spending, expressing a sense of urgency over China’s rise in this field. The Japanese government must strengthen its ties with the United States and other countries in an effort to regain the ground it has lost and reaffirm the existence of Japan as a nation built on science and technology.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Aug. 20, 2021.