Continued support vital to reshape basic research in Japan

The three natural science Nobels have been announced, but no Japanese scientists picked up prizes to follow last year’s win. In recent years, there have been concerns about a decline in Japan’s research capabilities. Continued support for basic science is necessary.

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, Japanese-born researchers have swept up Nobel Prizes: 20, including Manabe, a U.S. citizen, have earned the prize in the field of science.

However, this reflects the fact that past research achievements are now being valued. There have been many cases in which research conducted by people around the age of 40 led to Nobel Prize wins 20 to 30 years later. The average age of Japanese winners is 65.

In terms of the number of research papers that are frequently cited by scholars in various countries, Japan has noticeably lost ground. If the pool of young researchers becomes thinner in the future, the pace of Nobel Prize wins by Japanese scientists could slow down.

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

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

Looking around the world, top scientists, regardless of nationality, move around first-rate research institutions in various countries. Amid such a global trend, there is concern that Japan — which has many inward-looking researchers lacking overseas experience — could be 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 has praised OIST, which was established by the Japanese government, for investing research funds on a long-term basis, even in research that takes time.

However, since national universities were transformed into incorporated institutions in 2004, the government has been cutting subsidies for operating expenses, which form the basis of funding to manage universities. Young researchers are coming under increasing strain as a result of reduced personnel expenses and a rise in unstable fixed-term employment.

To overcome the deterioration of the research environment, the government has established a university fund of about ¥10 trillion and will begin providing support to several universities going forward. Many have said this is the last chance for a revival.

The influence of the initiative can already be seen: Tokyo Institute of Technology and Tokyo Medical and Dental University have begun merger talks to apply for the fund. It is hoped that the government and university leadership will consider effective ways to use the fund and devise strategies to raise the level of research capabilities.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Oct. 8, 2022)