Boost economic growth by restoring scientific research capabilities

The Yomiuri ShimbunScience and technology become sources for creating new value, businesses and markets. They are the engines of economic growth.

Japan for a long time proclaimed itself to be “a science and technology-oriented nation.” In recent years, however, the decline in its international status in this regard has become conspicuous. How can Japan regain its research capabilities and connect this to growth? Relevant discussions should be deepened on this occasion of the House of Councillors election.

Saying that science and technology have a direct effect on national power, the Liberal Democratic Party has made such campaign promises as vowing to double the scale of the space industry.

Japan is one step ahead of other countries in the development of technology to remove space debris orbiting around the Earth. Should the technology be practically applied, it will provide significant business opportunities. Japan will be able to enhance its presence as well.

In the private sector, too, some entities have taken on ambitious challenges. One start-up company is getting ready for a project to create artificial shooting stars, by releasing metal balls from satellites. There are also ongoing plans to construct a rocket launch site in Wakayama Prefecture and elsewhere, with the pivotal roles assumed by private enterprises.

The important thing is for the central government to support such new attempts, so they can take off. The precedent seen in the United States can be helpful.

The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration has continuously placed orders to Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX, for launching rockets, thus advancing the privatization of space development projects. SpaceX is currently leading the rest of the world in the space industry.

Don’t neglect basic research

Improvements in basic research are also essential. The Democratic Party for the People, for instance, has proposed an increase in grants-in-aid for scientific research, known as kakenhi. Kakenhi funds are distributed widely, and many researchers rely on them.

To rectify inefficiencies at universities, there has been a growing trend of intensively funneling large-scale research funds to excellent researchers. However, over-application of this approach of “selection and concentration” has resulted in some researchers growing impoverished due to a shortage of funds. It is necessary to discuss how research funds should be managed.

Basic research is an area where future development is hard to discern. A number of Japanese winners of the Nobel Prize have said that initially they didn’t know what use there could be for their research. The value of basic research carried out with a sober, long-term approach should be recognized, and such efforts should be supported.

In Japan, the relay from planting the “seed,” or basic research, to having it come into “flower” as a new product or new drug has not been conducted well.

Prof. Hidetoshi Nishimori at the Tokyo Institute of Technology made public a basic theory on quantum computers in 1998. But it was a Canadian venture firm that converted his theory into a commercial reality in 2010. It is problematic for epochal research not to win understanding of its value at home, and be siphoned out of the country.

The government now considers quantum technology to be a key field. Rather than imitating trends created by countries in Europe and North America, Japan should work out a strategy with such mettle that it becomes the source of new trends.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, July 8, 2019)Speech


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