JPRI Working Paper No. 74: February 2001
What's Wrong with Japanese Basic Science?
by Sam Coleman


Japanese science has long been in the doldrums. The dearth of Nobel Prizes to Japanese researchers-- less than one percent of the world's total-- is just one indicator of the countryÔs mediocre performance. Japanese contributions to the international basic science literature fall behind those of the other major international players in both volume and impact (the extent to which their articles are cited by other scientists in their own research publications). This lackluster performance is particularly disappointing in light of Japan's technological sophistication and wealth. A 1992 study conducted by Science found that Japan's relative output of academic papers was even lower than its major competitors' when controlled for Gross National Product (in this case, number of papers per billion dollars GNP). Accordingly, Japanese science attracts little interest in the West. The number of long-term visits to Japan by American scientists sponsored by the National Science Foundation has been falling since the early 90s. Japanese scientists share this dim appraisal of their work, particularly in the quality of research in the life sciences. In surveys and discussions, they express a yearning to give the world more truly creative work. Why, then, their lackluster performance?

Climbing Out of Poverty

Until recently skimpy research funding looked like the culprit. R&D spending on practical applications far outstripped basic research funding. In the universities, where most basic research takes place, meager support-staff ratios have made it hard for researchers to accomplish much, and graduate students have long been devoting far too much of their time to scut work at the expense of learning. The material poverty, even in the elite former Imperial universities, has been truly remarkable. A 1991 exposé in AERA evocatively entitled "The Brain Coffin National Universities," described the hallways of Kyoto University's plant physiology laboratory as lined with containers salvaged from trash bins to culture seaweed. One of the lecturers became the local authority on vending machine sake containers because he was substituting them for the beakers that were beyond his laboratory's budget.

The early 1990s saw a movement for increasing government expenditures on basic science. A 1992 document issued by the Japanese Federation of Economic Organizations (Keidanren) asked the government to double the national universities' budget for science and engineering. Media portrayals of the universities' plight, and high-profile lobbying by figures such as the President of the University of Tokyo played a part as well. By the second half of the 1990s the money began to flow. The Basic Science and Technology Law of 1995 and the Basic Science and Technology Plan of 1996 committed the government to impressive outlays, and they have weathered various cutting measures to reduce the government's deficit. The first five-year plan, now ending, has injected 17 trillion yen into the country's R&D establishment.

There are still material needs to fill, in particular expanding floor space in university laboratories; in the 1990s average area per researcher was less than half the space enjoyed by Western counterparts. Money is not likely to yield commensurate results, however, particularly in universities. Last year, in recognition of such unsatisfying results, the government proposed pegging its university funding to performance. However, subsequent outlays of money are also doomed to suboptimal results unless policy-makers address the most pernicious problems of organization in the Japanese science community.

Deeper, More Pervasive Issues

Perhaps the best way to understand the defects in Japan's organization of scientific research is to start at the level of individual scientists and their careers. The ideal career system in any country's basic science community rewards scientific creativity on the basis of achievement in a "credit cycle." In this dynamic the careers of individual scientists evolve in a cyclical fashion: a researcher invests his or her time and money in research on a particular topic of his or her choosing, and the accomplishments act as "credit" for winning money. The scientist then applies those funds from competitive grants to conducting more research (that earns even greater recognition, which serves to attract "capital" for creating more reportable results). The young scientist, for example, uses a postdoctoral grant to generate publications that qualify him or her for a position offering more resources that he or she can then transform into greater accomplishments via more thought and effort. Careers evolve in this process: with greater experience and achievement come upward professional mobility in the form of more substantial rewards, including control of a wider array of resources and personnel.

The competitive dimension of the credit cycle, along with increasing specialization and rapid change in science, require mobility-- not only upward (or downward) professional mobility, but inter-institutional mobility as well. Competitive, career-building mobility also optimizes the mutual fit among research team members, joining together kindred spirits with complementary interests and commensurate levels of skill and knowledge. This dynamic is epitomized in the curriculum vitae, or "c.v." It contains an intellectual and institutional pedigree, but more importantly, it presents a competitive bid for positions and research money by proclaiming the specialties and interests that the researcher has staked out, and it documents his or her prowess in realizing that potential. The c.v. provides a powerful tool for matching candidates with job openings, research grants and research teams.

Impediments to Rewards-Based Careers in Japanese Science

Such is the ideal dynamic for scientific research, portrayed here as a perfectly friction-free machine. In practice, it is vulnerable in any country to economic conditions; a downturn in effective demand for full-fledged researchers can arrest many scientific careers in their early stage of development. The credit cycle dynamic is also quite vulnerable to distortion by politics, since this form of competition among individuals-- and by extension, the larger organizations in which they work-- must be based on clearly applied, impersonal criteria of ability and performance. Gender and ethnic discrimination are the more typical obstacles of the political variety. No country's research establishment is free of such obstacles. Among the major industrialized countries, however, Japan's scientific community displays the most serious problems for the cultivation of careers in science.

Critical attention has focussed for some time on the koza, the small, hierarchical departments in research universities that are headed by an all-powerful full professor (or "boss") who directs the research of less senior faculty members and serves as academic advisor to the department's graduate students. Under the professor are an associate professor and one or two assistants (joshu, sometimes referred to as "assistant professors"). The most frequent target of koza criticism is the permanent employment granted to all koza members at entry, but a constellation of less apparent koza-related practices are more pervasive and do more damage.

A vibrant credit cycle requires open recruitment, in which the broadest possible audience of applicants responds to public job announcements that canvas a country's entire academic community and foreign applicants as well. The process (known as kobo in Japanese) is familiar to Japanese academics, but it is undermined by intramural hiring and "introductions" from koza heads. In a 1990 Japan Science Council survey of mid-career academic researchers, only one third of the respondents in the Council's natural science units claimed that all or "nearly all" of the academic appointments in their schools' divisions were made through open recruitment. As of the mid-1990s a third of Japan's university faculty were teaching at the institution from which they had graduated, a proportion that had remained unchanged for the previous decade. However, even that figure greatly understates the use of selection methods other than open recruitment. The more elite universities-- the flagships of Japan's research enterprise-- are far more likely to hire from within, attaining insider ratios of 80 percent and higher. Medical schools have attained truly spectacular rates of inbreeding, with percentages in the high nineties. By contrast, departments of biology and chemistry at universities in the United States fill only about 10 percent of their faculty positions with home-grown candidates. As in Japan, the elite schools tend to select more of their own: at 25 percent, Harvard University's Department of Chemistry tops the inbreeding ratio. On the other hand, MIT's Department of Biology registers fewer than one in eleven faculty holding an MIT doctorate.

Faculty recruitment in Japan from other universities follows a hierarchical pattern of colonization, with the more elite universities using the lesser institutions (often in the hinterlands) as job slots for their graduates. The practice was methodically investigated and denounced by science critic Jun Ui over 25 years ago. Such conduits are, alas, still in the making. In 1996, when Kochi Prefecture established its new prefectural institute of technology, locals predicted that the positions at the new school would be filled by the Tokyo Institute of Technology. The new institute's president and his provost had earned their degrees from the Tokyo Institute of Technology, and in two years degree holders from that university came to represent 55 percent of the Kochi institute's faculty appointments (84 of 153)-- not a stunning majority, but living proof that the alma mater job connection is alive and well. Even the Osaka Bioscience Institute, a research institution formed in 1987 with the mission of transcending old organizational patterns, has settled for institutional connections to fill all but a handful of its positions. As OBI entered its second decade of existence it edged into the Kyoto University sphere, which now claims majority representation among its division chiefs.

The practice of "introductions" from influential academic advisors establishes and maintains these connections. Cynicism regarding the practice is endemic, and my own informants and acquaintances in the sciences believed that openly announced positions were actually filled through networks of influence. The perception reflects the pivotal role that academic advisors play as manpower brokers. According to one survey from the late 1980s, almost three fourths of the technical specialists with Ph.D. degrees who entered the private sector relied on their advisors' introductions to secure their jobs. Graduate students believe that an advanced degree candidate on bad terms with his or her professor is doomed to unemployment.

Numbered among the losers in this narrow conduit-guided recruitment process are able candidates from lesser universities, to say nothing of foreigners. Also screened out are women, since the practice tends to favor men, who are already positioned in privileged networks. Some twenty years ago women in the Young Biochemists' Association argued to their colleagues that hire-from-within penalized them because it relied on subjective emotions over an objective assessment of all candidates' past work.

Less apparent but ultimately even more telling is the loss to the hiring institution itself when it does not rely on open recruitment: it has settled for a good-enough candidate at the expense of the best candidate, compromising its own ability to perform innovative research. This system's hardened arteries, in combination with the long-depressed job market for Ph.D.s, has discouraged the cultivation of c.v.'s; half of the interviewees in my 1991 study had no c.v. at all, and many others used a standard stationery store résumé form that simply related a chronology of the positions they had held.

Funding Inefficiency and Misallocation

The koza is a unit for budget allocations as well as personnel, and the full professor controls its purse strings. Herein lies the professor's control of the koza research agenda; if junior members want to pursue a different research subject they must either convince their leader or conduct their own work on a small scale on the periphery of koza activity. This fiscal hierarchy influences the allocation of publication credit as well. The practice of including the name of the professor on all koza members' publications is widespread, and is one factor in the greater number of authors on Japanese research papers compared to authorship of articles produced in other countries. Deciding authorship on publications, including author sequence, can pose ambiguities in any country's laboratory, but the most generally accepted guideposts dictate that all coauthors have had some role in conceptualizing and executing the research being reported. In Japan, however, the chief professor's co-authorship acknowledges merely that it was "his money" that funded the research and may include an editorial role of uncertain specificity. The practice obscures the contributions of assistants and students, creating a credit deficit that further delays their career development.

Recent reform in research funding from the Ministry of Education (MOE) has gone in the direction of larger appropriations for grants through the Science Research Fund (Kagaku Kenkyu Hi, known popularly as Kaken Hi). As of the mid-1990s, those funds accounted for a fourth of the research funds made available to national universities. Most (but not all) of the grants are awarded on a competitive basis, but defects in the process greatly limit their influence as a reform. Partly this is because these funds were never intended to inject competitive dynamism into the koza: they are "supplementary funds," and most of the awards conferred in open competition are very modest in size.

The Fund's distribution pattern also favors the former Imperial universities, particularly in the large-scale project grants. Although the selection process is based on peer review, the only restriction placed on evaluators is that they may not review their own applications. In the United States, by contrast, applicants for National Science Foundation grants must list their academic advisors and all research collaborators and students over a specified number of years; guidelines for prospective reviewers must enumerate the relationships that would disqualify them, including having served as the academic advisor of the project's principal investigator.

The selection process of the MOE's Science Research Fund also lacks transparency in proposal evaluation. With the exception of a small minority of the Fund's award programs, reviewers are not required to explain to applicants their decisions when rejecting applications. This omission is a double loss because the practice of providing reasons strengthens reviewer accountability while affording applicants useful correctives for improving their research strategies (along with valuable encouragement when they are on the right track). As it stands, reviewers are too hard pressed to comment on individual applications; they are assigned several hundred research proposals, and the deadlines are tight. Herein also lies a source of the bias toward elite universities; the big names offer an easy short cut to ostensibly safe decisions.

Nor do nonprofit funding sources fill the need left open by the Ministry of Education's system. Although over 200 foundations in Japan support research, their total contribution represents only about a tenth of the Science Research Fund awards. Private foundations benefit science most when they support unfashionable or high-risk research by dark-horse candidates. The United States's John Douglas French Alzheimer's Foundation offers a shining example, priding itself on supporting research that government agencies tend to avoid. One French Foundation recipient, Stanley Prusiner, received the 1997 Nobel Prize in Medicine/Physiology. Japan's Stanley Prusiners cannot count on similar help, however, because the award pattern for nonprofit funding essentially duplicates the Science Research Fund's preference for the elite universities.

Where Change Must Originate

Apologists for Japan's status quo typically claim that change must come slowly in order to accommodate long-standing "ways of thinking." Those assertions certainly do not match with the sentiments of Japan's scientists, whose responses to opinion surveys reveal ample discontent. The previously mentioned Japan Science Council survey found fewer than ten percent of its respondents in favor of maintaining the koza as the unit of research organization. Over 80 percent agreed with the statement that open recruitment should be a principle of hiring. When the Japanese Biochemical Society polled its most professionally active members regarding the Science Research Fund, 84 percent agreed that conflicts of interest should be reduced in the selection process. These percentages would certainly have been higher if the youngest members of the scientific community had been polled.

The power to make changes lies elsewhere. Regarding ways of thinking-- and doing-- we should look first to the people who administer scientific research. Japanese scientific research exhibits two rather striking features: a high degree of centralized government control, and a severe shortage of scientific expertise among administrators of scientific research programs. First-tier national universities receive the lion's share of resources and attention in the natural sciences, in stark contrast to the United States, where state and private universities contend for funds and reputation on a department-by-department basis. Science historian Shigeru Nakayama once pointed out the origins of the contrast: Japan's universities were created by central government fiat, whereas universities were established in the Colonies before the United States had even come into being. Japan's national government also requires nonprofit research institutes to affiliate with one of the government's ministries and accept its oversight, which claims authority even in such matters as a change in the institute's name.

Grant-giving foundations must also have a government affiliation, and they bind themselves even more tightly to bureaucratic prerogative by staffing themselves through amakudari (hiring retired officials from the ministries charged with their oversight). The practice helps explain the foundations' lack of genuine independence in grant-making decisions. Japan's tax code severely limits deductions for philanthropic gifts, and any research institute wishing to secure tax-exempt status must run a gauntlet of truly daunting steps for approval set up by the Ministry of Finance. Gifts to national universities must pass through the MOE's "Special Account" to insure its control. As of the late 1990s, only one university in the country (Waseda) had a system of attaching indirect costs to research grants in order to give it some independence in meeting ongoing operating expenses.

Despite this centralization of resources and power, the government lacks a sophisticated knowledge of scientists' needs. The ministries, including the Ministry of Education, do not select their program administrators on the basis of advanced scientific expertise. In MOE there are no such people in the ranks from whom to choose. As of the late 1990s there were no Ph.D. holders in regular positions in that ministry. The background of choice for MOE recruits is the undergraduate degree in law, after which they are hired in classic Japanese large-organization style. Nor does the Ministry cultivate specialization in science administration among its staff. Assignments to departments overseeing research in the universities take place for two years on a rotation basis. In one example of lost opportunity, an MOE administrator of my acquaintance was accepted by the U.S.'s National Science Foundation for a one-year internship. He could not subsequently parlay his experience in this oasis of science policy and research administration into his own career trajectory: on his return to Japan he was rotated into Special Education (the Ministry's section dealing with primary school children with learning disabilities).

The rotation of bureaucrats reflects and reinforces the priority of orientation (and loyalty) to the Ministry over dedication to any particular specialty, which represents a threatening centrifugal force. And indeed there is much to master regarding MOE's organization; a sprawling institution, it encompasses the gamut from postgraduate research to pre-schools for four year olds. Scientific research has never been a priority item there. By one calculation, MOE's early 1990s budget devoted to scientific research represented less than a tenth of its outlay for school lunches. One cannot expect this institution to encourage and reward insightful decisions regarding peer review or the credit cycle.

The toll of the current bureaucratic configuration may lie most heavily on Japan's life science researchers. The biomedical fields in Japan are palpably behind the West's, and they need interdisciplinarity and coordination of resources. There is no funding body that provides comprehensive support of bioscience research comparable to the United States's National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation or the United Kingdom's Medical Research Council, all staffed by specialists in bioscience research. Instead, five government agencies in Japan fund their own research in the life sciences and set their own guidelines for such issues as the safety of recombinant DNA research, often duplicating each other's efforts. The "vertical administration" style among the ministries also discourages cooperation and sharing of resources among scientists affiliated with different ministries.

The "Mobility" Issue and Other Mistaken Diagnoses

Japan's policy specialists and domestic science pundits are well aware of the country's mediocre basic research track record. However, given the needs of robust career development for scientists, the reformers' attentions are misplaced. Current reformist moves are aimed at increasing mobility among academicians by dismantling tenure at Japanese universities. These moves are not guided by an informed model of career evolution, but by a perception that "dead-wood" university faculty need more of a "hungry spirit" in order to perform well.

There are many suboptimal performers in Japanese universities, and they represent a drain on resources-- no surprise, given the prevailing methods of recruitment. But the current solution of dismantling tenure is aimed only at the youngest (and politically most vulnerable) segment of the academic community. The only other purported benefit of this narrowly defined effort to improve "mobility" is to expose faculty to new contexts and contacts. Given the severe hierarchy in Japanese academia today, the brunt of this mobility and its dubious career benefits will be borne by women and graduates of second- and third-tier universities, doomed to an academic gypsy life. (Like "flexibility," "mobility" is one of the organizational lexicon's more dangerously misleading terms.) Real career reform for Japan also requires open recruitment and competitive grant allocations through peer review, both conducted transparently with explicit, verifiable criteria. So far, the effort devoted by policy makers to these issues is remarkably slight in comparison to the attack on lifetime employment. The government's recent creation of 10,000 postdoctoral researcher positions is similarly ill-advised. As molecular biologist Ken'ichi Arai observed, they have no independent positions to step into once their postdoctoral terms end.

Another misguided target of reform is education in science and mathematics at the lower levels. Together with laudable efforts to reduce the emphasis on university entrance examinations, reformers want to reshape the distribution of ability in mathematics and science among Japanese children. Although the country has consistently ranked among the world's best performers in primary and middle school science and mathematics, recent thinking proposes that the spread in abilities is too narrow. Some Japanese have therefore advocated cultivating the very brightest children even if it means poorer results among other students-- a proposal for tracking that American educators find very problematic.

The biggest problem with this approach, however, is that there is no dearth of imaginative and dedicated research ability in today's Japan. Women scientists are woefully underutilized, and organizational experiments like the Osaka Bioscience Institute and the Biomolecular Engineering Research Institute are peopled with creative talent with nowhere else to go in a subsequent career move. These researchers are faced with the rather grim career choice of treading water in a sea of short-term low-level appointments or the degrading rituals of koza life-- enough to make any talented young onlooker think twice about a career in basic science.

An Administrative Setback

One sure sign of organizational reform in Japanese science would be the creation of a national-level institution dedicated to funding basic scientific research, administered by individuals with science backgrounds, along the lines of the United States's National Science Foundation. Many Japanese scientists have voiced just such a hope. At one time, the Science and Technology Agency (STA) qualified as a prospective parent; in 1981, its public corporation arm, the Japan Research and Development Corporation, created the Exploratory Research for Advanced Technology (ERATO) program. ERATO attracted international attention for its collaborative projects that recruited researchers from academia, industry and government laboratories, and together they produced some high-profile successes. A National Science Foundation type of institution has no chance of evolving out of the STA, however, because that agency is being absorbed by the Ministry of Education under the banner of "administrative reform," ostensibly to economize and streamline the bureaucracy.

It is hard to identify another governmental unit specialized enough to serve as midwife to a serious national institute for science. Moreover, the Ministry of Education is low on the ministerial totem pole, rendering it vulnerable to future money-saving moves. According to one perception among scientists who see the merger of the STA and the ministry as a mistake, MOE may have the buildings and facilities, but STA has the raw talent for organizing scientific research. Somewhere, someday, Japanese scientists should have administrators who understand their craft. Entrusting the administration of science programs to people who know and love science would benefit not only the realization of more enlightened macro decisions but would also inform decisions regarding the more mundane operations in science as well, from designing more efficient application forms to identifying wasteful spending.

Who Loses?

Political economists believe that nothing short of a thorough reform in Japan's socioeconomy, including revitalization of its education system, will bring about the hoped-for end to that country's economic stagnation. A vibrant basic research community is indeed essential to the process. Studies of the relationship between patents and basic research literature have identified a pattern of increasing reliance on the latter for the formulation of patented technologies, and the recent history of entrepreneurship in the United States is replete with examples of successful firms that originated among university faculty and students.

However, citizens of the world-- Japanese and foreigner alike-- have a much bigger stake in the health of Japanese science. Global science needs as many competent players as possible to address the thorny problems of health and the environment, and to make accurate statements on issues ranging from world climatic change to species endangerment and antibiotic-resistant organisms. As long as Japan is unable to translate its wealth and human talent into substantial scientific contributions we are all the poorer for it.

SAM COLEMAN is an anthropologist and author of Japanese Science: From the Inside (Routledge, 1999) as well as the earlier pioneering work on Japanese birth-control, Family Planning in Japanese Society: Traditional Birth Control in a Modern Urban Culture (Princeton University Press, 1983). This article is based on research funded by grants DIR-8911539 and SBR-9511897 from the National Science Foundation's Studies in Science, Technology and Society Program and the Japan U.S. Fellowship Program. The findings and conclusions do not necessarily concur with the views of the NSF.

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