Japan’s contribution to world-class research continues to decline, despite having one of the largest research communities in the world, according to a report by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), which was released in English on 25 October.
Masatsura Igami, the director of the Center for S&T Foresight and Indicators at the National Institute of Science and Technology Policy (NISTEP) in Tokyo, and one of the authors of the 2023 edition of the Japanese Science and Technology Indicators report., said the findings highlight several areas Japan can explore to improve its global standing. “The current research environment in Japan is far from contained and unsustainable. The research environment needs to be shaped,” he said.
The report shows that Japan ranks third worldwide in the total number of researchers, following China and the United States. However, these workers are not producing the same level of high-impact research as they did two decades ago. The global share of Japanese research papers in the top 10% of most-cited articles dropped from 6% to 2%, intensifying Japan’s concerns about its declining international standing. this.
Igami explained that the rest of the world has caught up with Japan in terms of quality research output. “Japanese researchers are not very productive. But the research environment in other countries has improved a lot in the last decades,” he said.
Time and money
Some of the decline may be due to funding, Igami said. The 2023 report shows that research spending in the university sector has increased by almost 80% in the United States and Germany, 40% in France, four times in South Korea and increased more than ten times in China in the last two years. decade. In contrast, spending in Japan increased by 10%.
Nature Index 2023 Japan
However, even if researchers receive more funding, doing high-impact research can be challenging, as Japanese scientists have less time for actual research, Igami said. According to a 2020 analysis by MEXT, the proportion of time dedicated to university researchers in science went from 47% to 33% between 2002 and 2018.
“University researchers are increasingly expected to take on a variety of teaching roles, industry collaboration and community engagement. In medicine, junior researchers spend more time on clinical duties to maintain hospital revenue, “said Igami. “While there are benefits to universities contributing to the wider society in various ways, this limits the time available for research.”
The report’s findings confirm a previous survey of early-career researchers that pointed to a lack of time for research as a major cause of job dissatisfaction. Haruka Ono, a civil engineer at Toyohashi University of Technology in Japan, who was part of the team that conducted the survey, said that respondents found administrative tasks too burdensome.
“Anything from visa paperwork for foreign lab members, to getting calls from landlords saying your students aren’t paying rent on time – that’s your responsibility if you are a principal investigator,” he said.
Changing research environment
To get more dedicated research time, Wataru Iwasaki, a computational biologist at the University of Tokyo, who represents early career researchers at the Science Council of Japan, wants to see more support staff, including administrative staff and laboratory technicians as well as staff. with business expertise to facilitate partnerships with the private sector. Currently, Japanese universities have one technician for every 20 researchers, a number lower than other countries in the 2023 report.
The support staff will also add to the trend away from the hierarchical laboratory models that are prevalent in Japan, Ono added. Traditional lab structures give senior faculty members control over research direction and resources, with junior faculty often playing a supportive role. For example, Tohoku University, which has been chosen as the recipient of Japan’s new university endowment fund, has promised to appoint more junior researchers as principal investigators. But without support staff, sudden autonomy can be counterproductive for junior researchers. According to Ono when he became principal investigator, he went from having no experience running a lab, to having students rely on him for direction while also having to meet his own research goals, without even what professional support – an experience he describes as “overwhelming.”. “The anxiety that accompanies it is not useful for attempting long-term, high-impact research,” he said.
Igami says that seeing lab members struggle with increased aging can deter young scientists from pursuing a research career. He says that the number of PhD students has decreased by 21% in the last two decades. Attracting more PhD students to the lab, who have more research experience than undergraduates and master’s students, will be important for accelerating higher-impact research in Japan, he said.
“The research environment in Japan has not improved from the past, and career prospects in academia are deteriorating, as universities increasingly offer temporary positions for researchers,” he said.