How science should be supported
Science is a human activity based on intellectual curiosity and is essentially positioned as one of the cultures that enrich people’s mental activities, as well as society. In Japan, science and technology are considered as one and termed “science technology,” whereas in Western Europe they are considered independent from one another. Science makes progress, which is then applied to technology; conversely, technological advancement also promotes scientific progress. This co-creation is accelerating nowadays. We are entering an era where technological advancement will greatly enhance our lives, and scientific thinking with a focus on the future of human society is becoming increasingly important.
In Japan, national universities and research institutes have historically played a major role in promoting science. Hence university members, including myself, have no doubt that science should be supported by the state. However, it is only a recent event in history that the promotion of science has become an important national policy. In other countries, especially the U.S., where private and corporate donations, and foundation funds play a major role, public funds account for a much lower proportion of university operating expenses than in Japan. In the U.S., donations from individuals as well as support from foundations make a huge contribution. In addition to the differences in tax system between the U.S. and Japan, a culture of support for basic science has taken root in the former, which differs significantly from the latter.
The plight of Japanese universities
Japanese universities now find themselves financially challenged as a result of annual reductions for around the past 10 years in grants to cover their operating expenses, which have served as regular operating funds. Stable funding for laboratories has been abolished and all research and operating funds have become project-like competitive funds that universities must win. This has been making it difficult for universities to continue with their operation with a long-term plan. Meanwhile, competitive funding is very intense, requiring researchers to quickly deliver results, which leads to a very difficult situation for challenging research and basic research that naturally requires a long period of time. Consequently, universities’ research capabilities have materially declined and this is having a serious adverse impact on the younger generation.
Firstly, professors and associate professors are too busy with faculty meetings, university administration, and paperwork to win research funds. In fact, they have less time to spend on research than before. It has become hard for many universities to recruit new young researchers. The number of permanent employees has fallen, and many young researcher positions are now fixed-term. This was recently highlighted by the journal Nature. With a five-year term, young researchers are evaluated in the third year and must look for a new job after the fourth year, thus making it difficult for them to settle down to their research. Writing a paper for a first-class journal has become an important condition in establishing themselves as researchers. Eventually, there is a growing tendency for them to work on trending issues and they have little choice but to avoid challenging and long-term basic research. In the field of biology, it is now the norm for an associate or assistant professor position to receive over 200 applications. This situation has had a major impact on both undergraduate and graduate students and has reduced the appeal of universities and researchers. As a result, there has been a decline in the number of students advancing to doctoral courses at graduate schools, which means universities are failing to meet admission quotas. This further weakens universities’ research capabilities and young people’s research minds, leading to a very serious situation when considering the development of the next generation and the succession of science.
Crisis of original research
In recent years, there has been a strong demand for greater efficiency in Japan, with a quick return also increasingly expected in scientific research. The question immediately posed is what the research will be useful for, which is a terrible blow to those involved in basic research. Breakthroughs in natural science do not come from the idea of conducting research that is immediately useful. On the contrary, it is apparent that historically, discoveries that yield a paradigm shift originate mostly from unintended, seemingly fruitless research.
As efficiency in the use of research funds has been sought, such funds are no longer allocated as freely and are instead being concentrated among a small number of researchers. Accordingly, many excellent researchers with potential for originality are unable to receive research funds and proceed with research, with the effect that the base of research is rapidly shrinking. It is impossible to bring about a sharp high peak without a large base. The research environment at local universities is now deteriorating rapidly.
Meanwhile, the relationship between Japanese companies and universities appears to be weaker than before in my related fields. While globalization is sought, large proportions of companies’ funds are directed overseas. Universities are crying out for collaboration with companies due to the serious financial difficulties they face. However, the significance of research at universities is not fully examined and it is not being differentiated from research at companies, leading to a weakening of university research. Consequently, companies have ever-lower expectations of Japanese universities and joint research is being hollowed out. We thus need a coherent new system for collaboration between universities and companies, which will contribute to strengthening the research capabilities of both parties, simultaneously.
The first step to breaking through the plight
A drastic increase in the national research and education budget is indeed desired, but in order to break through the current plight, it is necessary to take the first step of reform as soon as possible. For challenges that have less chance of gaining support through funds from the state, public institutions, or foundations, I intend to promote various attempts from the viewpoint of frontline researchers. This will not be limited to support for a small number of researchers but will also be an opportunity to reconsider the origin of research. Basic life science aims to reveal the fundamental principles of life, which should be widely shared as a common asset for humankind. It is also important to promote the recognition that excitement for the truth and insatiable intellectual curiosity are the driving forces behind the future society. Therefore, I trust that if OFSF’s activities grow to a large extent, this will be the first significant step in a major direction toward the improvement of the current negative mood of universities. If superior and original research is undertaken in Japan and young people can experience the joy of research, then sustainable human resources will be developed for future prosperity. This will eventually increase the research capabilities of companies and generate intellectual property. I also aim to promote activities to strengthen truly effective and more organic links between universities and companies by moving away from joint research aimed at short-term product development.
Following several discussions with many university members and entrepreneurs, I decided to set up a foundation to support basic science. To that end, it is essential to bring together several frontline researchers and gain support from individuals, volunteers, and companies that assist the foundation. It is also vital to gather researchers with great insight who can make fair judgments.
While OFSF is an unprecedented new social experiment, I sincerely hope that we can gain support from everyone who feels a sense of crisis in Japan’s current situation and has expectations and a sense of responsibility for the development of basic science.