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Fundamental science research in Japan in peril

Tokyo Institute of Technology honorary professor Yoshinori Ohsumi, winner of this year's Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, speaks in Yokohama's Midori Ward in this Oct. 7, 2016 file photo. (Mainichi)

While Japan continues to celebrate another Nobel Prize this year, concerns have started to emerge that in 20 or 30 years' time, Japan will no longer be producing Nobel prizewinners. The reason is that the government budget supporting basic science is shrinking, negatively affecting Japan's research environment.

It is not always clear how basic science -- which enabled 71-year-old Yoshinori Ohsumi to make his discoveries of the mechanisms of autophagy and won him this year's Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine -- can be used in the future. But basic science is why applied research in product development and other areas can exist.

In a meeting in Kanagawa Prefecture on Nov. 26, Osumi warned, "If only productivity comes to be valued, then basic science won't grow."

Takaaki Kajita, head of the Institute for Cosmic Ray Research at the University of Tokyo, shared the Nobel Prize in physics in 2015 for the discovery of neutrino oscillations. And particle physicist Yoichiro Nambu won the 2008 prize for the discovery of "the mechanism of spontaneous broken symmetry in subatomic physics." These discoveries both fall within the realm of fundamental science.

Each time a Japanese person has won a Nobel Prize, voices of concern about Japanese scientists' research environment have grown louder, but the situation is only getting worse. The main cause of this is a reduction of grants that the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology pays to national universities across Japan. The grants provide a stable source of income for universities, and are an important financial base for fundamental research, which struggles to attract capital from companies. However, in the 12 years since national universities were turned into university corporations, such grants have dropped by 12 percent, or a total of 147 billion yen, to nearly 1.1 trillion yen in fiscal 2016.

In October this year, a council of deans of national universities' science departments held a news conference underscoring the tight situation universities were in. It was reported at the conference that individual research grants paid to seven universities including Hokkaido University and Hiroshima University based on their operating expenses used to top 1 million yen per researcher, but now the amounts have dropped down to somewhere between 100,000 and 500,000 yen. Hiroo Fukuda, a science research head at the University of Tokyo, commented, "In my case, the power bill for the animals I keep is big. Then if you subtract office expenses for phone bills and so on, there's hardly anything left." He said he manages to acquire the money he needs for his research through other means.

The reduction of grants has also affecting hiring. According the education ministry, national universities have reduced hiring to curb personnel expenses, and the number of young researchers under the age of 40 has dropped by 810, or 4 percent, from 2007. At the same time, the proportion of young researchers who are on limited-term contracts that expect them to produce results within a set time, making fundamental research difficult, jumped from 39 percent in 2007 school year to 63 percent in 2016 school year.

The ministry offers "Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research" as a source of funds for individual researchers. The grants are offered through an application and screening process, and this fiscal year over 100,000 people applied in the main fields of research -- a record high -- as if to symbolize the need for such funding. But over the past five years, the total amount of grants has plateaued at around 230 billion yen, while the proportion of accepted projects, at 26.4 percent this fiscal year, has seen five straight years of decline. Now over 70 percent of applicants are unable to obtain such grants.

Still, officials at a deliberative body at the Ministry of Finance displayed a tough stance in a meeting this month, stating that the proportion of government spending on science and technology compared to gross domestic product was not inferior to that of other major countries.

The education ministry is trying to increase the amount of grants covering operating expenses. There is a view within the ministry that universities are increasingly relying on external funding from companies and other bodies, but in many cases this is short-term support, meaning that universities will lose their ability to tackle long-term projects that are required for fundamental research.

Kiyoshi Yamamoto, a University of Tokyo professor familiar with the operation of national university corporations, commented, "With budget cuts, the number of researchers and office staff declines, and since the burden on the individual increases, it clearly has a bad influence on research. At some universities, they are even cutting their subscriptions to science journals, and the research environment is only worsening."

This year's Nobel Prize ceremony will be held on Dec. 10.

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