Japanese universities have declining research capabilities

The number of papers published by Japanese universities has been declining since the 2000s. In addition, the number of highly cited papers, which indicates the quality of papers, continues to decline. Even working researchers like us feel that the research capabilities of Japanese universities are declining.

One of the reasons is that science and technology research funding is insufficient. In fact, China and other countries, where the number of papers is growing rapidly, are said to have seen their science and technology budgets increase by eight times in the past 20 years.

It is true that Japan, with its economic growth slowing, cannot afford to increase its science and technology budget. However, it is also true that science and technology are the foundation of creating innovation that invigorates the economy.

For example, a vaccine against the COVID-19 is based on mRNA technology, which has been said to be difficult to commercialize.

American pharmaceutical companies have been researching this technology for long time. Because of this, they have succeeded in speedy development of a vaccine against this pandemic, and countries around the world are moving to procure vaccines with large budgets.

On the other hand, innovation utilizing Japan’s scientific and technological capabilities has been slow to occur.

In other words, a decline in science and technology research budgets due to a decline in economic power leads to a decline in creating innovation, which in turn leads to a downward spiral of economic power. Therefore, the government has also announced various measures.

For example, there is a project to establish a university fund of 10 trillion yen. At first, expectations for this were high, but now all universities are in a state of confusion.

Actually, there are various conditions that need to be met to receive a share of this fund. For example, a university may be required to establish a Board of Trustees with outside experts and to achieve a 3% annual growth rate.

I can only guess what the intention is to make such a condition, but I can say that the independence of universities will be lost. If universities lose independent research and free discussion, that leads to a loss in the value and significance of universities.

In other words, the measures taken against universities, which began with a sense of crisis due to the decline in Japanese science and technology capabilities, are not necessarily appropriate.

How did this happen? I think it is because the government does not really understand how science actually progresses.

“Selection and concentration” is not conducive to the development of science

In fact, since the incorporation of national universities in 2004, the concept of “selection and concentration” has become central to the allocation of science and technology research budgets. The idea is to focus a limited budget on promising research areas and obtain research results more efficiently.

Therefore, the ratio of competitive research funds increased by decreasing the management expenses grants of national universities. In other words, it is a system to have researchers list research subjects and apply for research funds, select promising ones amongst them, and provide research funds.

However, there is no way to know in advance which scientific research will succeed. It is like saying only buy winning lottery tickets.

This system also has researchers take time and effort to prepare application forms. Actually, this is also a problem.

One of the reasons for the decline in the research capabilities of Japanese universities is the lack of research funds, but another reason is that researchers are spending less time on research.

This is due to an increase in clerical work, such as the creation of application forms, as well as a reduction in management expenses grants, which has reduced personnel costs and the number of staff members, causing researchers to spend more time on routine tasks. In other words, a vicious circle is taking place here as well.

Of course, since the budget is limited and funded through a tax, I understand the idea of using it effectively. However, especially in the case of the natural sciences, it is by no means obvious to the researchers themselves whether their research is useful to society.

Then, what are researchers doing their research for? It is often a curiosity to understand how the natural world works. What was unraveled by that has been accumulated as human knowledge.

In order to promote the curiosity of researchers in the form of science, such an environment as a university in which independent research and free discussion are secured is also necessary.

That is, both the system of the 10 trillion-yen fund and the idea of “selection and concentration” behind it are not conducive to the development of science and the nature of universities.

Einstein’s driving force was curiosity

Einstein, the leading physicist of the 20th century, described himself as not a genius, only a passionate curiosity. In fact, he was interested in many things and had great patience to pursue them.

If you examine the papers he wrote and the books he read in his youth, you will find that he never got his answers by inspiration, but rather by diligent studying, and taking small steps to arrive at a new theory.

For example, if he thought he lacked the math skills needed to express his physics ideas, he relearned math from scratch.

It is also famous that Einstein was employed by the Patent Office because he was not immediately recognized when he was young and did not get a post in a university.

In those days, when he came home on time, he would immerse himself in his own studies and research, inviting his friends to discussion, and hold study groups. Einstein also had a lot of free time after getting a job at university.

In other words, it was not compulsory study or research for some goal, but activities to satisfy his interests during spare time that laid the foundations for Einstein and later led to the construction of a new theory.

In fact, the general theory of relativity, one of his most famous theories, concerns the structure of the entire universe. It provides a very interesting picture of how the natural world works, but I do not think Einstein himself thought about how it would relate to our lives. In a way, it is a very hobby-like story. However, I think that is the essence of physics and other natural sciences.

Interestingly, the GPS technology we use today is based on this general theory of relativity. But GPS was put to practical use about 80 years after Einstein published his theory.

There is a saying, “standing on the shoulders of Giants,” and Einstein was also one of those standing on the shoulders of giants. And I think he became the foundation of the giants after that.

But keep in mind, it is not just the history of success that makes a giant a giant. It is said that if the foot of the mountain is not widened, the mountaintop will not be elevated. Einstein did not come to the theory of relativity in a straight line but went through a lot of trial and error. When all the researchers’ trials and failures add up, both the summit and the giant’s shoulders rise.

In this sense, allowing various trials and failures will lead to the next generation of innovation.

Since I have been studying the progress of such science in the history of science, I must say that Japan’s current policy of science and technology, which focuses on “selection and concentration,” is not very appropriate.

Rather than “selection and concentration,” it makes sense for science to allocate funds broadly, even when there are fewer funds, to allow for research that has no results at all, and to nurture the beginnings of diverse research.

In recent years, many Japanese have won a Nobel Prize in the field of science, but when these laureates started their studies, there was no concept of “selection and concentration.”

On the other hand, there may have been an environment in Japan in the past that allowed researchers to have the time to continue their research because it was interesting, even though they did not know what it would be useful for in the future and it was full of failures.

* The information contained herein is current as of June 2022.
* The contents of articles on Meiji.net are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.

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