Explore ways to enhance researchers’ motivation to tackle new challenges

The Yomiuri ShimbunMany difficulties lie ahead for Japan to be a world leader in science and technology. There can be no alternative but to have such an impression.

The National Institute of Science and Technology Policy — an organization under the direct jurisdiction of the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry — has released findings of its fiscal 2017 survey on the current status of science and technology in Japan. The prevailing view among researchers is that “notable results have not been produced.”

The opinion survey covered about 2,100 leading researchers of universities and other organizations plus about 700 industry experts.

In a question on “whether any internationally significant accomplishments have been made in basic research fields,” the researchers gave an average of 4.1 points out of 10 and the experts 4.0 points, down 0.6 and 0.5 points, respectively, from those recorded in the previous survey conducted in fiscal 2016.

The results for about 60 questions showed a remarkable decline in points. This illustrates the sense of stagnation and frustration looming among researchers.

As reasons for harsh evaluations, the respondents cited, among other things, “the number of [Japanese] researchers active globally decreasing” and “the global presence [of Japanese researchers] declining compared with those of Europe, the United States, China and India.”

Actually, Japan’s output of research papers has declined both in quality and quantity in recent years, with fewer cited papers and others than those of not only European nations and the United States but also China. Japan is being left behind in the world. Policy reexamination is unavoidable.

About 40 percent of the researchers who responded complained that, among other things, they were not able to actively conduct research. Reasons behind this are that government subsidies for the operation of research institutes have been reduced, as well as an increase in workloads and the volume of clerical tasks.

Incentivize to drive ambition

Government subsidies for the operation of national universities have been cut by nearly ¥150 billion in the past 12 years. It has become difficult to recruit full-time researchers. Institutions that do not replace retiring professors are not uncommon.

Given tight fiscal conditions, a dramatic rise in the number of government subsidies cannot be expected. To help make up for the drop in available funds, the government recommends procuring funding from the public and private sectors to finance projects for three to five years.

This has the effect of encouraging competition but eliminating research posts after projects finish. Many researchers complain that they cannot concentrate on research projects if their terms are fixed. A vicious circle will arise in which young and capable students will not aim to become researchers.

Recent years have seen Nobel prizes awarded to Japanese scholars one after another. But if the current situation is left unaltered, it is doubtful that potential successors will be fostered.

During a meeting of the governmental Council for Science, Technology and Innovation, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has announced that the government “will prioritize budget allocations to universities that take a positive stance toward attracting funds from the private sector.” University research must be revitalized by providing financial assistance on a priority basis.

It is said that measures to broaden the annual salary system for the researchers will be considered. If the treatment of researchers is improved in concert with the achievement of research successes, it will enhance motivation to tackle new challenges.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, May 12, 2018)Speech


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