Japanese Science in a Global World

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Science  04 Jun 2010:
Vol. 328, Issue 5983, pp. 1207
DOI: 10.1126/science.1192830

The beginning of 2010 brought good economic news to Japan, which has seen only lackluster growth for the past two decades. Although the country's debt load and deflation remain serious problems, the world's second largest economy reportedly grew in the last quarter of 2009. But that does not mean that Japan is on a route to long-term recovery. Although the science budget for fiscal year 2011 was not severely cut, a worrisome sign was the government's attempts to freeze investment in Japan's science infrastructure (for example, supercomputing) and reduce spending on earth sciences, cosmology, and other fields. These were avoided through the protests of prominent Japanese scientists. The lack of political interest in bolstering investment in science and technology indicates misguided thinking. There is therefore a growing awareness in the Japanese research community that scientists need to become more involved in formulating the country's science policy and in guiding young scientists into international networks that will support a successful global economy for Japan.

After World War II, Japan forged a robust economy by focusing on manufacturing industries. But a sharp decrease in global demand for goods, the collapse of an asset bubble, and a failure to quickly adapt its traditional organizational structure in science, technology, and industry drove Japan into an economic crash in the early 1990s, leaving the country incapable of quickly responding through entrepreneurship and new ventures. In response, the Japanese government led by the Liberal Democratic Party instituted reforms in science and technology to encourage innovation. The goals included increasing the number of Ph.D. students and postdoctoral fellows and promoting goal-oriented projects to create new industries.


As a result, the number of graduate students and postdocs and the number of publications by Japanese scientists in prestigious journals increased. However, there has been a downside. The shift to a “big science” view with a “top-down” goal-oriented style has concentrated funding in fewer but bigger projects, thus supporting fewer researchers, rather than funding more individual scientists and small, more focused research endeavors. This has created uncertainty for young researchers today about their career paths in a top-down research environment. This is reflected in a recent decrease in Japanese Ph.D.s going abroad to expand their professional and educational development and to create collaborative relationships. From the 1960s through the 1990s, many Japanese researchers went to North America and Europe for postdoctoral training. Today, young Japanese researchers who face job opportunity challenges may fear not finding a job upon returning home after time abroad. Whatever the precise reasons, the result is an inward-looking attitude of young scientists, which works against establishing strong international scientific networks. In contrast, other Asian countries are energetically nurturing such ties, particularly China, India, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand.

One of the reform goals of the previous Japanese government, which has not been achieved, was to provide independence to young investigators through an open research system that supports international paths for career development without borders (of nationality, gender, or age). Pursuing this goal in the context of a bottom-up open platform for science and technology that frees scientists to pursue their research interests would create career paths that are interchangeable with those in other countries, particularly other Asian nations. Such a flexible research infrastructure would allow for shared opportunities among many Asian countries and may help them tackle common problems in health care, food, energy, and the environment.

After the Democratic Party of Japan was victorious in last year's elections, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's science policy was not initially clear. Today, the good news is that the new government supports genomic and stem cell research, biotech ventures, and green technology programs. But if the economic recovery stalls, science may face severe budget cuts. Scientists must communicate much better with policy-makers about how to direct investments in ways that will put Japan on a path toward sustained growth, including support for a generation of globally integrated and innovative scientists.

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