Japan’s Research Capabilities / Put a Brake on Serious, Long-Term Decline

It has long been said that Japan’s research and development capabilities are declining. The government must make efforts to rebuild basic research capabilities and put a brake on further decline.

The three natural science categories of the Nobel Prize have been announced, and like last year, there were no Japanese winners. Since 2000, Japan has produced a string of laureates, with 20 scientists, including Yoichiro Nambu — a naturalized U.S. citizen — receiving the awards.

In particular, from 2008, when Nambu and three Japanese scientists received their Nobels, through 2021, when Syukuro Manabe of Princeton University in the United States won his Nobel, there have not been two consecutive years in which Japanese scientists were not awarded the prizes. The current situation is regrettable because winning a Nobel Prize is a valuable opportunity to draw society’s attention to basic science.

In many cases, Nobel Prizes are awarded to scientists 20 years to 30 years after doing their research. Therefore, this year’s results in terms of whether there were Japanese winners do not necessarily reflect the current situation in Japan.

However, it is clear from the number of most-cited papers and other indicators that Japan continues to lose ground in the area.

Regarding the number of important papers, which are the top 10% of publications in terms of citations, Japan has been overtaken by Iran and dropped to a record low of 13th place. If the stagnation continues, it is feared that one day there will be no Japanese winning Nobels.

Overseas, industry and academia are working together to explore applications of new technologies as more new areas of research are being pioneered.

Katalin Kariko from Hungary was among this year’s winners for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The basic technology related to a genetic material that had been discovered by Kariko in the United States has been put to practical use by a U.S. company and a German startup to develop a vaccine against the novel coronavirus.

Such technological innovation is a major challenge for Japan, where there are scarce global flows of human resources and very few university-originated startup companies.

The government has been reducing subsidies for operations of national universities for a long time. As a result, there are more researchers with unstable positions, making it difficult for them to devote themselves to engaging in long-term research.

Many researchers are burdened with a multitude of tasks and are often overwhelmed by the paperwork necessary to apply for research funding. This situation must be fixed.

The government has announced a policy of establishing a fund of about ¥10 trillion to help universities become facilities that can compete with the world. The government said it will provide about ¥10 billion in the 2024 academic year to Tohoku University, which became the first accredited candidate for the fund.

There are high expectations for Tohoku University, which was selected for the fund for its enthusiasm for reform, beating out the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University.

Tohoku University should proceed with bold reforms under its president’s leadership and make flexible use of the new funds. It is hoped that the school will set an example for all universities on how to improve their research capabilities.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Oct. 16, 2023)