By Takaaki Kajita, director of the Institute for Cosmic Ray Research at the University of Tokyo
(Interviewed and edited by science journalist Shinya Midori)
Scientific research in Japan is in a critical state today. In the Showa and Heisei Eras, Japan laid the foundations for the nation to be powered by science and technology, but those foundations will collapse in the Reiwa Era if Japan does not take action immediately.
I am particularly concerned about “research funds.” Japan’s national universities were incorporated in 2004, and the government has been allocating grants to these universities to cover their operating expenses [since then]. Initially, a total of 1.24 trillion yen was disbursed as grants. However, the grants have been reduced across the board by 1% annually until recently.
The government tells beleaguered universities that they “can make up for the reduction in the grant by securing funds from outside.” But almost no universities can actually do that, so the reality is that universities have no choice but to cut costs to deal with reduced grants.
To reduce costs, universities made deep cuts in personnel funds. Universities gradually reduced the number of full-time posts they offer, such as positions for young associate professors, and they gave up hiring young people. There are fewer opportunities for energetic young researchers who will spearhead research and education at universities in the future. Most researchers are not able to find stable posts until they are 40.
Moreover, because there are fewer posts, university professors are expected to teach more courses and have to perform duties not related to research, such as occupational safety and health management work associated with their university’s incorporation. That has deprived young researchers of time for their own research.
The initial goal of reducing the grants may have been to eliminate “fat.” But now the reduction is paring away “muscle.” The foundations required for universities to serve as research institutions and higher education institutions will only weaken further if no action is taken. The situation is more serious in national universities located in regional areas. The University of Tokyo, where I work, still has some dynamism, but it is only a matter of time [before it runs out].
More competitive funds
In December last year, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) announced a plan to introduce a “weighted allocation based on the evaluation of the progress in university reform” for roughly 10% (100 billion yen) of the public grants for covering university operating expenses in fiscal 2019 and to apply the method to the entire public grants in fiscal 2022 onward. Setting aside the appropriateness of evaluating the result of university reform, I hardly think that a yearly change in the amount of the public grant is a good idea. The ministry’s decision will make it difficult to steadily operate universities with a long-term perspective.
In recent years, “competitive funds,” whose allocation is determined based on evaluation, is increasing. I believe the trend of reducing the public grants for covering university operating expenses and increasing competitive funds negatively affects the environment for scientific research.
There are two problems with competitive funds. One is that in many cases, except for Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research, the direction of research is predefined by the government.
Such a restriction discourages various research projects that might show signs of success and make great strides in the future. Further, young researchers who were employed with competitive funds are only allowed to conduct research consistent with a theme chosen by a research representative.
The other problem is that the allocation period of funds is divided into short terms. The allocation period is about three to five years for each theme. That makes it difficult for researchers to undertake projects that are likely to take a long time to achieve results.
In a nutshell, researchers employed with competitive funds have to engage in their supervisors’ research projects and write a thesis in a short period of time. So they can hardly take time to work on projects they really like to do.
Researchers need to be in an environment that enables them to concentrate on and strive for their projects especially when they are young, because that is when they can do the most creative work in their lives. But many young researchers nowadays can’t find a next job unless they continue achieving short-term results and churn out theses one after another. It’s harsh to tell non-tenured young researchers who are in an uncertain environment to achieve innovative research results.
I’d like to talk about how I spent my young days as a researcher.
I began research on the “mass of neutrinos” in 1986. I was an assistant back then. I didn’t produce prominent research results when I was in graduate school. But I could get a post through the kindness of Dr. Koshiba after getting my PhD.
The Kamiokande [underground neutrino detector] was not originally intended for neutrino research but for finding a phenomenon called “proton decay.” But we couldn’t observe proton decay for a long time, so we were improving on the data analysis method. Then we found that something was strange — neutrino observation data did not match the simulation-based theoretical value. The discovery of “neutrino oscillations” began from here. The phenomenon of oscillation does not occur without mass.
People might think that this research must have been promising right from the beginning because it eventually won a Nobel Prize. But that’s absolutely wrong. Some people actually pinned their hopes on the research, saying, “This looks interesting.” But others advised us, “You might as well stop the research early because it’s wrong anyway.”
But I didn’t go through painful experiences before achieving results. As a result of research, it turned out that my data analysis that showed something was wrong with neutrinos had been wrong. I knew I would not lose my job even if I could not achieve results. I could devote myself to my research because I had a stable post as an assistant and was not horrified by the notion of being fired.
I’m not the only one. All the members of Dr. Koshiba’s laboratory always immersed themselves in research. They were individually analyzing the observation data of the Kamiokande according to their own interests. Day after day, we talked about what kinds of experiments we should conduct to elucidate a law of nature, sometimes over a few drinks.
It was in 1998 when neutrino oscillations were eventually confirmed and globally recognized. A full twelve years had passed since we found a clue to the discovery. During that period, I, as what is now called a corresponding author, wrote only four theses in a decade, from 1988 to 1998. If that had been today, I’d surely have dropped out.
My research might have been buried without showing a glimmer of success if it had been today, a time of excessive competition when young researchers are required to achieve short-term results. I think I was very lucky in terms of research environment.
Lower quality of theses
I’m going to show you interesting data. It’s a survey conducted by the National Institute of Science and Technology Policy (NISTEP), directly controlled by MEXT. The results of the survey conducted on some 500 experts in the industrial world and approximately 1,000 researchers at universities and public research institutions show the trend of recent research activities.
What is worthy of attention is that the majority of the respondents are feeling that “the number of researchers who emphasize a long-term research strategies and steadily pursue a research theme is decreasing.” Most of the respondents said that they feel an “increase” regarding other items, such as the numbers of researchers “who strongly aspire to produce short-term results,” “who conduct research projects with a high degree of certainty to produce results,” and “who emphasize the number of theses as a research achievement.” These increases are not so welcoming.
The survey results indicate tendencies for researchers to conduct projects with a high degree of certainty on a short-term basis and to mass produce theses.
Speaking of theses, the decrease in the number of theses is significant in Japan. The number of theses in the U.S. and other major countries is on a remarkable upswing, particularly in China. The U.K., Germany, France, and South Korea are also steadily producing greater numbers of theses. But the number in Japan has been flat for several years now.
Also, though it is obvious if we look at the aforementioned research trend, the quality of theses is slowly declining in Japan. The number of cited papers serves as an index for measuring the influence of theses. It indicates how often a thesis is included in the top 10% of most cited papers in each category. According to a ranking (the average of all categories) created by NISTEP, Japan ranked fourth in the world from 2003 to 2005, but dropped to ninth place from 2013 to 2015.
Competition for everything but the kitchen sink
As I mentioned earlier, the total amount of competitive funds is increasing. The government is also insisting that the total amount of research funds is larger than before. Nevertheless, the research environment has worsened and thesis have declined in number and quality. I think this is because the money was used inappropriately.
The biggest problem is the excessive “focus on competition.” I feel the idea that competition is the only way to produce good results has been dominant since the beginning of this century. Of course, research needs a certain degree of competition. But today there is too great a focus on competition. It has reached the level of harming the healthy development of research.
The acceptance rate of the Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research, a budget to support basic research, has remained at about 25% over the past several decades. The cutback in public grants for covering university operating expenses has increased the number of applications for the grants-in-aid. That led to cutthroat competition for the grants-in-aid, keeping many researchers busy preparing an application for the program in autumn of every year.
One of the negative effects of the low acceptance rate for grants-in-aid is an increase only in the number of trendy research projects of the time, because trendy research themes easily pass the program’s selection process. It goes without saying that promising research projects are not necessarily trendy and judges of the program are not sure how to identify whether projects are promising or not.
The government offers various frameworks [for allocating research funds] and has a system for the prioritized distribution of research funds in a top-down fashion. I don’t mean to denigrate all of them, but how many truly innovative achievements have these frameworks produced? Research for which a certain degree of results are anticipated can never be innovative. Research in which a bud emerged out of nowhere, grew, and produced flowers is truly innovative.
No one knows which research projects will be useful. That makes wide-ranging basic research all the more important. I think the idea that “selection and concentration” is good is a major factor contributing to the weakening of the scientific capacity of Japan.
I’d like to also touch on “education.” The primary role of universities should be research and education. But they have now been shorn of basic strength and unable to operate with a long-term perspective, which is indispensable for education. That makes me worry that universities are becoming unable to fully provide higher education, which is essential to Japan’s aspiration to become a nation that is creative in science and technology.
I’m also worried about human resource development. What is particularly worrisome is the decline in the percentage of students who have completed their master’s course and are advancing to a doctoral course. The percentage of science and agriculture students who have completed their master’s and are advancing to a doctoral course has dropped by nearly 50% from 1991. According to the Basic Survey on Schools, 6,923 students who completed their master’s course in March 2018 advanced to a doctoral course. That’s less than 10% of the total. Even if they become researchers, they won’t be able to get a steady job and will be required to produce short-term results, so they won’t be able to find their own themes and focus on research. Under such circumstances, it is no wonder fewer young people want to become researchers.
The number of doctorate degree holders is increasing in all of the advanced nations with the exception of Japan. This is the only advanced nation where the number is falling.
The drop in PhD’s will negatively affect Japan’s industrial competitiveness, because profound knowledge, especially the understanding of the most-advanced science and technology, is indispensable for leading future industries. If we look at other countries, we can see a clear trend in which people who have received higher education and earned a PhD are leading not only industry but also national policymaking. I think that’s exactly why the number of doctorate degree holders is increasing in other countries.
In any case, in today’s Japan, many students in master’s programs observe that senior researchers in their laboratories are unable to shape a vision for the future and losing the enthusiasm to pursue a doctorate.
Scientist is one of the jobs that today’s grade school children aspire to do when they grow up. In many surveys asking children about their dream career, scientist is ranked in the top 10. But as they become junior high and senior high school students, fewer students aspire to become scientists. It’s an extremely disappointing reality that children who aspire to become scientists are forced to face the harsh reality and give up their dream when they grow up.
Proprietary value of “knowledge”
Then the question arises as to where Japan should start in order to enhance its ability to conduct scientific research.
Firstly, for research projects that can be conducted with a relatively small amount of funds, the acceptance rate of competitive funds, which allow researchers to determine their research theme, should be increased. Speaking of the Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research, the acceptance rate of the item called “Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research (C),” for which up to five million yen is subsidized, should be raised. This will allow the wider allocation of research funds.
Further, the status of researchers should be stabilized by, if possible, increasing the public grants for covering university operating expenses to the previous level or at least supplying the grants in a stable manner. We can think about universities’ development from a long-term perspective only after such measures are taken. These measures will eventually lead to quality “research” and “education” and create a virtuous cycle.
Investment with “determination” is necessary for reversing the decline in Japan’s ability to conduct scientific research. Particularly in the case of basic scientific research, investment often fails to produce results. Also, it takes several decades for some projects to prove fruitful. Last year, the group led by Dr. Tasuku Honjo won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation. But the development of drugs is one of only a few examples in which research is actually utilized in our health and daily lives.
As for neutrinos, the subject of my research, they may not have an industrial value even in the far-distant future. But knowledge about neutrinos’ behavior is indispensable for understanding the origin and the mechanism of the universe and is an intellectual asset of humankind.
There are various kinds of research projects – those which show only a slightest sign of success, those which show a sign of success but take a long time to actually produce results, and those which are low in industrial value but high in intellectual property value. I hope Japan respects these research activities in the new era of Reiwa.