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Mainichi poll: Where Japan's parties stand on the future of scientific research

Voters gather to hear a party leader speak in Kobe's Kita Ward on Oct. 14, 2017. (Mainichi)

Government funding for scientific research is among the issues facing parties ahead of the Oct. 22 House of Representatives election, and the Mainichi Shimbun sent a questionnaire to eight major political parties concerning their stances on the weakening of academia in Japan and their policies to combat issues facing researchers.

Seven parties responded to the survey, with only the Party of Hope declining to participate. On scientific and energy-related measures, both ruling and opposition parties agreed that Japan's scientific prowess is weakening and more government funding for research is necessary. On the standard of Japanese academic research, five parties, not including Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party) and Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), answered that it has been weakening for the last 10 years. While the parties were divided over the funding of research on military technology and the nuclear fuel cycle project, all seemed to share a sense of crisis about the future of scientific and technological research in Japan. Mainichi Shimbun and Kindai University instructor Eisuke Enoki analyzed the survey responses.

"With the cuts in university funding and the 'selection and focus' of government funding for research, the gap between universities and researchers has expanded. It's become difficult to engage in challenging research, and the motivation of young academics is weakening," said Yoshinori Ohsumi, Tokyo Institute of Technology professor emeritus and winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, at a September press conference announcing the founding of a private organization to invest in fundamental research.

A total of 16 Japanese scholars have won Nobel Prizes in the three natural sciences fields since the start of the 21st century, putting Japan in second place for the most prizes following the United States. However, the work which won each scientist their prize was overwhelmingly from the previous century. In recent years, the number of academic papers published by Japanese researchers has flat-lined -- unique among the group of seven leading industrial nations, and toppling Japan from fourth place to ninth in the number of published significant academic works.

However, among the major political parties, "You can see a difference in their reasoning for the decline," says Enoki. "The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Komeito cite 'weakened ties between industry and academia' as one cause for all research not involving climate change, and push for stronger research cooperation with the industrial sector. In contrast, the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) criticize the fall as being the result of the Abe administration's 'focus on competition and weakened focus on the basics,' claiming that the government should treat fundamental research as an important investment."

What is often treated as the culprit for the "crisis" in academia is the lack of research funding. After national universities were made into corporations in academic 2004, the operating subsidies that the institutions could use freely were cut by 10 percent. In exchange, the amount of competitive fixed funding which researchers have to compete for was increased. The Japanese government's "5th Science and Technology Basic Plan" for fiscal 2016-2020 laid out a goal of raising government investment in encouraging research by a total of some 26 trillion yen over the five year period.

All of the parties largely agreed on the government budget for such funding. The LDP and Komeito answered that it was a goal worth pursuing, while all other parties except the CDP responded that the figure "should be increased." Enoki points out, "The effect of decreasing research funds is huge. Making organizational changes or receiving funds becomes difficult, and these conditions where researchers cannot focus on their work must be improved."

Even then, the government pocketbook is not bottomless, and there is a limit to just how much money can be poured into the sciences. This makes budget allocation an important key in revitalizing domestic research. Among the options for allocation of funds, there is the "top down approach" where budgeted funds are concentrated on a research proposal tackling particular issue deemed useful by the government; and the "bottom up approach," where funds are given to researchers to freely pursue research in their own areas of interest. In a June Cabinet decision about future investment strategies, the government named five fields of research such as increasing life span and realizing innovation in mobility as "selected" areas to "focus" funding -- the top down approach.

When asked about the two approaches, no party selected "top down" alone. The LDP answered that they would maintain both kinds at roughly the same level to both nurture scientific and technological innovation as well as projects that benefit all of society. Komeito, Nippon Ishin and the Party for Japanese Kokoro also responded that they would maintain both types at roughly the same level.

On the other hand, opposition parties JCP and Social Democratic Party (SDP) answered "bottom up," saying that allowing researchers to do their work freely also has value, and being unduly pressured into specific fields will not support good research. While saying that "funding fields such as artificial intelligence and information technology should be an important part of the budget," the CDP answered that the government should meet with researchers directly to cooperatively consider research directions.

"The Abe administration has put a lot of emphasis on innovation," says Enoki. "The idea that 'scientific measures are economic measures' has been strong." The focus on top-down government-driven research and bottom-up research led by those in the field is a divisive point among the parties.

Another clear point of contention was military and nuclear research. In fiscal 2015, the Ministry of Defense set up a system for scientists at universities, companies, and other institutions to apply for funding of cutting-edge fundamental research applicable in defense technology. There were concerns that this fell under the label of "military research," and the Science Council of Japan denounced it as "having many problems from the standpoint of the health of academia" in March.

Concerning military research, the LDP stated that the results were important for the safety and security of the country and its citizens, and that such research should be furthered, with Nippon Ishin and Kokoro in agreement. The JCP and SDP were strongly against promoting military research, while Komeito and the CDP did not provide clear answers.

Additionally, concerning the government's nuclear fuel cycle project -- extracting and reusing plutonium from spent nuclear reactor fuel -- opinions were clearly divided between the LPD and Kokoro, which said that research into the cycle process should continue, and Nippon Ishin, the JCP and SDP, which said it should cease. Komeito said, "Following the decommissioning of the Monju fast-breeder nuclear reactor, the project requires reconsideration."

On the other hand, the LDP, Komeito, Nippon Ishin, SDP and Kokoro all supported the government goal of decreasing greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 -- specifically a 26 percent decrease compared to 2013. The CDP and JCP responded that they would like to see a decrease of over 30 percent and between 40 and 50 percent, respectively, compared to 1990 emissions.

Each party very rarely brings up science and technology policies in public speeches, and there are few chances for candidates to make their opinions known.

"It is necessary for voters to not only look at the ruling LDP-Komeito coalition's campaign promises in this election, but also at how much they have kept their past promises," stresses Enoki. "It's also important to question just how realistic the promises made by the opposition parties are. I'm hoping for more serious debate."

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