Photo/IllutrationNobel laureate Yoshinori Ohsumi gives a lecture at an elementary school in Koganei, western Tokyo, in 2017. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The white paper on science and technology, recently approved by the Cabinet, starts with remarks by four Nobel laureates stressing the importance of basic research, or endeavors seeking scientific truth and principles.

The comments come from Koichi Tanaka (2002, chemistry), Takaaki Kajita (2015, physics), Yoshinori Ohsumi (2016, physiology or medicine) and Tasuku Honjo (2018, physiology or medicine).

Ohsumi, for example, says he is deeply alarmed by, and critical of government subsidies being partial to research for industrial and health-care applications. He is joined by the other three scientists in sounding a collective warning over the current situation in Japan.

The situation, in a nutshell, is that academic papers that merit international recognition have steadily decreased, and the nation is lagging behind the rest of the world in challenging new fields of research. As well, Japanese scientists are allowed only limited time to devote to research, with the ranks of younger scientists shrinking.

These critical trends are not new and have been pointed out in white papers of late.

But the situation has not only failed to improve but has grown worse. The time has come for the government to break this vicious cycle with policy decisions based on accurate understanding of the problems.

An urgent task is to build an environment that enables younger scientists to devote themselves to research, irrespective of their nationality.

According to a survey of those who find employment at universities and research institutes upon finishing their doctorate programs, about 60 percent are hired as fixed-term employees, and the term is two years or less for more than 40 percent of these employees.

There is also data to indicate that more researchers in their late 30s work on fixed-term contracts.

Many researchers complain that they don't have the luxury of pursuing new, original subjects because they have to produce results during their fixed-term employment to secure their next job.

The insecurity of their status is a deterrent to studying abroad given the difficulty in finding jobs when they return to Japan.

Building experience in international scientific communities can advance one’s career, but the reality does not allow this. It’s small wonder that many students are balking at the idea of becoming researchers.

Starting this fiscal year, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology will embark on improving the research environment by targeting “about five years or more as a rule” for fixed-term employment for young scientists.

We welcome this new direction. However, the current problems stem from the government’s policy of cutting subsidies to universities while increasing grants for competitive research projects that are terminated after about three to five years.

Without rectifying this policy, no real solution can be expected.

A change in Japan’s research “climate” is also mandatory.

Ideally, assistant and associate professors should research subjects of their own choosing. But it has been pointed out that professors often determine the type of research to be undertaken by those researchers.

While we do not deny the benefits of team research itself, little progress can be expected if it stymies the initiative and independence of young researchers.

As long as the scientific community continues to use young talent as a “commodity” at its convenience, the talent will be worn out and eventually dry up. The government must acknowledge this fully, review its policies and budgets accordingly, and take swift remedial action.

Now is the time to take to heart the complaints of the four Nobel laureates.

--The Asahi Shimbun, June 19