24.10.2016 - Natural Sciences Sector

Why the increase in Japanese Nobel laureates since 2000?

(CC BY 4.0) Yoshinori Ohsumi, 2016 Nobel Prize winner for Medicine or Physiology

This month, Yoshinori Ohsumi (pictured) was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology ‘for his discoveries of mechanisms for autophagy, the process by which cells destroy and recycle cellular components. It is thought that mutations to autophagy-related genes may be linked to conditions such as cancer or diabetes. Born in 1945, Yoshinori Ohsumi is a Professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

‘Every year, Japanese people excitedly await the announcement from Sweden of the year’s Nobel laureates,’ comment the authors of the chapter on Japan in the UNESCO Science Report, released in November 2015. ‘If Japanese scientists are named, there is great celebration in the media and the general population’. The authors observe that ‘between 1901 and 1999, the public would have had to be extremely patient, as just five Japanese scientists received the prestigious award over this entire period’.

Since 2000, on the other hand, 17 Japanese scientists have been distinguished, including two who have become US citizens.

What explains this sudden acceleration? ‘This does not necessarily mean that the research environment in Japan has improved overnight’, recall the authors, ‘since much of the laureates’ work was done before the 1980s’. ‘However, public and private R&D funding did make a difference in some cases. The work of Shinya Yamanaka, for example, received ample funding in the 2000s from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science and the Japan Science and Technology Agency. Yamanaka was recompensed (Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, 2012) for his discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells. As for Shuji Nakamura (Nobel Prize for Physics, 2014), he invented efficient blue light-emitting diodes (LED) in the 1990s, thanks to the generous support of his company, Nichia Corporation’. 

‘What other factors could explain the increase in Japanese Nobel laureates? ‘It would appear that the focus of the prize has changed. Although the selection process is not disclosed, the social impact of research seems to have been carrying more weight in recent years. All [nine] Nobel prizes awarded to Japanese scientists since 2010 are for discoveries which have had a demonstrable impact on society, even though three Japanese physicists (Yoichiro Nambu, Toshihide Maskawa and Makoto Kobayashi) received the prize in 2008 for their purely theoretical work in particle physics’. 

The authors posit that, ‘if the Nobel Prize Committee is indeed giving greater recognition to the social impact of research, this could well be a reflection of the changing mindset of the global academic community. The Declaration on Science and the Use of Scientific Knowledge and Science Agenda: Framework for Action from the World Conference on Science in 1999 may well be the harbinger of this change. Organized in Budapest (Hungary) by UNESCO and the International Council for Science, the World Conference on Science produced documents which explicitly stressed the importance of “science in society and science for society”, as well as “science for knowledge”’.

Will the younger generation take up the torch?

Japan has one of the highest ratios of researchers in the world: 70.2 per 10 000 inhabitants in 2013. However, this ratio has barely progressed since 2008 (70.0). The number of researchers grew steadily until 2009 but then private enterprises began cutting back on research spending in reaction to the global financial crisis.

In academia, there are slightly more researchers today (+3.7%) than in 2008 but they have less time to spend on research than before: 900 hours a year in 2013, compared to 1 142 hours in 2008. Their working hours have been cut back and they face a much wider array of tasks than before. Between 2007 and 2014, Japan’s world share of scientific papers in the Web of Science shrank from 7.9% to 5.8%. ‘Although this is partly due to China’s continuing growth, Japan’s poor performance is extraordinary’, observe the authors. Whereas ‘the world produced 31.6% more papers in 2014 than in 2007, Japan’s own production shrank by 3.5% over the same period’. The downturn is visible in all fields of science.

‘The decline in publications by Japanese researchers might also be related to changes in the nature of public R&D funding’, analyses the report. ‘More and more grants to individual researchers as well as universities are becoming innovation-oriented, and just writing academic papers is no longer regarded as adequate’. Whereas innovation-oriented R&D activities also lead to academic papers, the efforts of Japanese researchers are now possibly less concentrated on producing papers per se. At the same time, there are indications that the decrease in private R&D funding has brought about a drop of publications by researchers in the private sector.

Many universities now in serious want of funds

Many national universities are now in serious want of funds. Over the eight years between 2007 and 2014, university spending on R&D grew by just 1.3% in constant prices. Their regular funding has declined consistently for more than a decade by roughly 1% a year, obliging them to spend an inordinate amount of time and effort applying for large institutional grants.  

There is growing recognition, however, of the side-effects of spending so much time on applications, administration and project evaluation: a heavy burden on both academic and administrative staff; short-cycle evaluations can discourage research and education from longer-term viewpoints and; it is often hard to maintain project activities, teams and infrastructure once the projects end.

How to strike the best balance between regular and project funding is thus becoming an important policy issue in Japan.

Young PhD-holders struggling to find permanent positions

Consequently, ‘young PhD-holders have been finding it difficult to obtain permanent positions in universities or research institutes. The number of doctoral students is on the decline, with many master’s students not daring to embark on a seemingly unrewarding career in research’.

In response, the Japanese government has taken a series of measures since 2006 to diversify the career paths of young researchers. There have been schemes to promote university–industry exchanges, subsidize internships and develop training programmes to give PhD candidates broader prospects and skills. The government has also promoted curricular reform of doctoral programmes to produce graduates who can more readily adapt to the non-academic environment.

The government has also taken steps to reform universities’ personnel systems. In 2006, for instance, the government began subsidizing the introduction of a tenure–track system at university, which had traditionally been absent from Japanese academia. The subsidy was expanded in 2011.

Also in 2006, the government launched a fellowship scheme for women researchers returning to work after maternity leave. Only 14.6% of researchers were women in 2013 but this ratio is on the rise. Women only accounted for 13.0% of researchers in 2008.

The number of foreign researchers is also low but gradually rising. In the university sector, there were 5 875 foreign full-time teaching staff (or 3.5% of the total) in 2008, compared to 7 075 (4.0%) five years earlier. The government has been taking measures to internationalize Japanese universities. The selection criteria for most large university grants now take into account the proportion of foreigners and women among teaching staff and researchers.

For the report, however, ‘arguably the most fundamental challenge facing Japanese universities is the shrinking 18 year-old population. Since peaking at 2 049 471 in 1992, the number of 18 year-olds has almost halved. The number of university students has only contracted slightly over the same period, thanks to the fact that twice as many 18 year-olds (51.5%) enroll in university today’. Nevertheless, ‘most stakeholders see signs of saturation; they share the view that a radical reform of the nation’s university system is imminent’.

Source: Sato, Y. and Arimoto, T. (2015) Japan. In UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030 (published in 2015)

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