Boosting S&T Innovation in Japan

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Science  01 Sep 2006:
Vol. 313, Issue 5791, pp. 1201
DOI: 10.1126/science.1133128

Japan's economy is finally emerging from a lost decade. economic data continue to suggest that the recovery this time around is real. But before celebrating, Japan's policy-makers must recognize that the key to Japan's future lies in science and technology (S&T) and do some serious rethinking of our economic strategy.

Fortunately, the importance of S&T has not escaped the attention of policy-makers in Japan. Even during the stagnated economic growth of the 1990s, and despite severe general government spending cuts, the rate of government investment in S&T has consistently increased. But because the need to raise productivity is paramount, we will require more major breakthroughs in S&T than we have accomplished at any other time in our history. How will we achieve that? The Third Basic Science and Technology Plan, approved by the Cabinet this past March, lays out government policy guidelines for the next 5 years and projects a total budget of some 25 trillion yen for S&T investment during that time. This is a clear indication that Japan is committed to pursuing future excellence in S&T. As the minister presiding over that decision, I think this course is the correct one for Japan and for our future generations.


So everything is peachy, right? Well, not quite. It is true that Japan's persistent investment efforts have begun to bear fruit. The recent economic recovery has been supported by such science-based innovations as electrically conductive plastic, now widely used in high-tech equipment such as mobile phones. But there are challenges that Japan faces, including the country's declining birth rate and aging population, and we will require much more of this kind of success. The key word is innovation. In both private and public sectors, we should ask ourselves whether Japan's traditional self-contained approach, endemic in many research institutions, has tended to suppress the flourishing of new ideas. Improving the mobility of researchers will create many more opportunities for them to explore new ideas and projects. In the private sector, venture businesses must be encouraged.

It is often asserted that innovation is hard to achieve unless it is supported by strong basic science. More and more, universities play a central role as the primary source of innovation. Many of the universities in Japan are national and have recently been made into corporate entities. But reforming higher education is still a work in progress. One major challenge is to eliminate such rigidities as seniority-based pay for researchers. To accelerate this change, the Third Basic Plan intends to create 30 world-class research centers and actively attract the best researchers from all over the world. The centers will have budgetary priority and a merit system with attractive pay packages. And a targeted reform of immigration control will facilitate the entry of foreign researchers into Japan and will also support them.

We also need structural reform in government processes. To clarify investment priorities and policy goals, we have worked hard to identify targets in each of eight S&T areas for the next 5 years. Under this framework, the Council for Science and Technology Policy (CSTP), chaired by the prime minister, should strengthen the coordination of various ministries toward policy goals. In addition to setting priorities for S&T resource allocation, the CSTP will address the need for regulatory and institutional reform. For example, current regulations regarding clinical research should be thoroughly reviewed and reformed, so that research can be carried out more transparently, with measures to protect participants in clinical tests. Another example is the reform of government procurement to expand new technology products and services.

If this new innovation-friendly strategy is successful, I am certain that the international scientific community will witness the beginning of a new growth era for Japan in the 21st century. My concluding message to that community is both enthusiastic and direct: “Researchers of the world, come to Japan to work with us. We will wholeheartedly welcome you!”

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