Japan’s string of Nobel prizes cannot veil its research funding squeeze
Published: Oct 18, 2016 09:13 PM

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

With the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature on October 13, all the 2016 Nobel Prize winners have been revealed. The Japanese scientist Yoshinori Ohsumi won this year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his outstanding contribution to research into the mechanism of cell autophagy, becoming Japan's 17th Nobel laureate since 2000. His success has seen Japanese natural science research (physiology or medicine, physics, chemistry) win Nobel's recognition for three consecutive years. Since the millennium, Japanese scientists have repeatedly won Nobel Prizes in natural science research, ranking second after the US.

Japan has achieved rapid development in gaining Nobel Prizes, and has taken just over a decade to complete its  goal, set in 2001, of having 30 Nobel laureates in 50 years. Chinese scientists took their first Nobel Prize in the field of natural science in 2015. It can be said that there is a huge gap between China and Japan's scientific research level. Indeed, the Japanese government's support for scientific research and its scientists' critical research attitude can be examples for the Chinese government and academic circles. Nonetheless, there are also worries in Japan's scientific research circle. That China's research level will go beyond Japan in the future is not inconceivable.

By observing Nobel awards for natural science, it is not difficult to find that the presentation of these awards tends to have a certain lag, most of which is an affirmation of research achievements in the past 10 to 30 years. Ohsumi's Nobel Prize is based on a research paper from 1992. Therefore, in recent years, the Nobel committee has repeatedly given out prizes to Japanese scientists, as a recognition of their contributions over the past 20 or 30 years to scientific research.

However, nowadays, Japanese people engaged in scientific research have exhibited worrying trends.

According to the School Basic Survey of the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) released in January 2016: the rates of Japanese master's graduates choosing to pursue doctoral degrees or choosing to work was respectively 13.2 percent and 70 percent in 2006 while the rates are 10.3 percent and 76.2 percent in 2015. Most Japanese Nobel Prize winners for natural science have doctoral degrees. Although winning Nobel Prizes is not directly related to one's degree, Japanese young people's willingness to engage in postgraduate study is declining, meaning that the number of Japanese young researchers will reduce, which will restrict Japanese scientific research development. As Ohsumi warns, science in Japan will "hollow out" unless support systems are established to help young scientists work on long-term research.

In addition to this trend, the current economic situation in Japan is also impeding its scientific research. According to MEXT's statistics, the Japanese government's financial allocation to its national universities decreased from 1.24 trillion yen ($11.92 billion) to 1.09 trillion yen from 2004 to 2016, and the national university budget dropped by about 11.8 percent. Japan's national universities have long been playing a leading role in basic science research, and the tight budgets of the government have not only deprived researchers at the national universities of a secure research environment, but also emphasized research that focuses on short-term economic benefit.

At present, in some areas, there is a gap between China's and Japan's research levels. However, I believe the gap will gradually narrow as the number of overseas Chinese students and PhD candidates is growing rapidly while the number of Japanese students willing to pursue further study is diminishing. The number of Chinese students at top universities in Western countries has far exceeded Japan's.

For example, data from the US Institute of International Education shows the number of Chinese and Japanese students was 62,582 and 38,712 respectively in 2005-2006 while it was 304,040 and 19,064 in 2014-2015. This does not guarantee that China's researchers can win Nobel Prizes in the short term, but step by step it will help enhance China's overall scientific strength, and make up for the lack of research in China.

The author is a PhD candidate at the Graduate School of Sociology at Toyo University. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion

blog comments powered by Disqus