A recent article on the prestigious scientific journal Nature’s website, dated October 25, delivered a stark message: Japan’s research capabilities no longer align with global standards. This revelation is significant, given Nature’s influence in the scientific community.
The report is based on findings from the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology’s think tank, which published the ‘Science and Technology Indicators 2023’ on August 8. The data paints a bleak picture: Japan, once a research powerhouse, now ranks fifth in terms of the number of research papers published and a dismal thirteenth in top-cited papers. This decline is stark compared to Japan’s earlier standing – second in paper count and fourth in top-cited papers until 2002.
Countries like Italy, India, Australia, Canada, France, South Korea, Spain, and even Iran now surpass Japan in research contributions. The rapid advancements in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Oceania have put significant pressure on Japan, especially in global university rankings.
The root cause of this decline is multifaceted. The most significant factor is the lack of investment in research and development. While countries like the USA, Germany, South Korea, and China have significantly increased their R&D investments, Japan’s investment has stagnated.
Another contributing factor is the reduction in national university funding and an overreliance on competitive grants. A faculty member at Tsukuba University laments the insufficient funding, which barely covers basic academic necessities. Furthermore, the burden of research has increasingly fallen on doctoral students, who are underpaid and face uncertain career prospects. This situation is unique to Japan among OECD countries and has led to a 21% decrease in doctoral enrollments over the past two decades.
The decline is also reflected in the Nature Index 2023, where only the University of Tokyo made it into the top 20, highlighting the stark contrast with China’s impressive performance.
Germany has recently surpassed Japan in GDP, and attributing this solely to currency devaluation overlooks the underlying issue of deteriorating scientific capability. The yen’s performance, labeled as one of the worst by Deutsche Bank’s currency research head, and Japan’s fall to a record low of 35th in the IMD’s International Competitiveness Ranking 2023, underscore the urgent need for a change in direction.
As the world undergoes a paradigm shift with groundbreaking advancements in genetics, brain-machine interfaces, generative AI, and quantum science, Japan stands at a crossroads. It must either reignite its spirit as a science and technology leader or risk becoming an isolated ‘Galapagos’ in the Far East. The choice Japan makes now will determine its future in this rapidly evolving global landscape.