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Japan Tries—Again—to Revitalize its Research

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The Tokyo University of Science demonstrates a new nursing care robot during Japan Robot Week in 2014.

Some scientists say Japan's research community has too few women and foreign scientists, a fear of change, and lack of support for young scientists.

Credit: Eugene Hoshiko/AP

Alarmed by the declining stature of its universities, Japan is planning to shower up to $2.3 billion a year on a handful of schools in hopes of boosting their prominence. The scheme was approved by the Japanese legislature on 18 May, although many details, including how to pick the favored universities, are still up in the air. But the move, under study for more than a year, has rekindled a debate among academics over how to reverse Japan's sinking research fortunes. Several previous schemes have yielded mixed results.

The new plan "aims to provide young promising scholars with the research environment that the world's top universities are supposed to offer, to dramatically enhance international collaborations, and to promote the brain circulation both domestically and internationally," says Takahiro Ueyama, a science policy specialist on the Council for Science, Technology and Innovation (CSTI), Japan's highest science advisory body, which was heavily involved in crafting the scheme.

But Guojun Sheng, a Chinese developmental biologist at Kumamoto University in Japan, is skeptical. "I am not very optimistic that this [plan] will do much to curb the slide in the ranking of Japanese research activities or international competitiveness," he says. Sheng, who previously studied and worked in China, the United States, and the United Kingdom, says the new plan does not address fundamental problems at Japanese research institutes: too few women and foreign scientists, a fear of change, and lack of support for young scientists. To get better results, "Japan has to change its research culture," he says.

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