“East meets West: Japan reforms its research system”

Japan is transforming its research system into more of a US-style system based on open competitive grants. Increased mobility is an essential part of plans to encourage younger researchers to become more independent. Kiyoshi Kurokawa, special science adviser to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, believes that independent-minded young researchers will develop more original research. A loosening of Japan’s centralised and hierarchical university system is another key element of Kurokawa’s reform plan. While advocating a US-style system, Kurokawa praises the framework programmes and sees the mobility of researchers across Europe as a major strength of the EU approach.

Kiyoshi Kurokawa Kiyoshi Kurokawa
Mobility discourages in-breeding and encourages original research. “Mobility discourages inbreeding and encourages original research.”
The majority of the students go to graduate programmes at Tokyo University. This tends to suppress creativity. The majority of the students go to graduate programmes at Tokyo University. This tends to suppress creativity.
© ISSL – University of Tokyo, Japan

What reforms do you plan to make to Japan’s research and science & technology policies?

I have been a member of the Committee of Science & Technology Policy for the last three years and we are reforming the grant system as well as the university system. Through the last 5 to 10 years of reform, national research universities have become independent agencies, and the budget for competitive research grants has been increased. So, change is underway, and we are making progress. The transition is not so fast, though, because it means changing from the old system to a more US-style system based on open competitive grants.

You mean more of a free market system for grants?

Yes, stimulating competing ideas is important. But it has to go hand in hand with a social system that encourages the mobility of investigators. Social structures such as social security, pension plans and other things have to support mobility. These are very practical – but important – issues.

Mobility is a major component of FP7 as well; why do you consider it so important?

Mobility discourages inbreeding and encourages original and creative research. There is more cross-fertilisation. In the past, researchers tended to stay at the same university, sometimes in the same group led by a particular professor, for their entire career. The system itself is not designed to encourage young investigators to become independent. That is one part of the system that we are really trying to reform. It has been a fundamental issue for the last 20 to 30 years.

Why is it important to encourage young investigators to become independent?

Creativity is the essence of future development. And creativity always comes from the younger generation. So you have to really encourage them to become independent. When you have to show you’re independent, that you’re different and you can become somebody on your own, it encourages you to become creative.

How do you encourage them to become independent?

For innovation and creativity to be nurtured, the key is that you have different mentors from different institutions. In Japan, in-breeding has been the norm. The majority of graduate students at Tokyo University tends to come from undergraduate programmes at Tokyo University. In the hierarchical structure of the Japanese university system, this tends to suppress creativity and reduce opportunities to work with different people. In the US, on the other hand, graduate schools accept applicants from other undergraduate schools and when you graduate you’re almost forced to go somewhere else as a postdoctoral fellow to continue your research and become a scientist with his or her own identity.

Why is there such a focus on Tokyo University?

Tokyo University was the first national university in Japan established almost 150 years ago, and has been considered to be the most prestigious. It also has the largest faculty and more funding than Kyoto University or Osaka University. As a researcher you have more peers and more infrastructure. So, once you’re in Tokyo University, you are tempted to take advantage of this built-in structure. That makes you want to stay there. And unfortunately that encourages inbreeding.

How much progress has been made towards the goals you mention here?

Japan has been changing over the past 10 years. More than half of all investigators now seek post-doc fellowships somewhere else, inside or outside Japan. Among others, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, one of the largest funding agencies, is encouraging younger people to develop as independent investigators.

But the transformation is taking some time. Implementing a US-style system and encouraging younger investigators to become independent is not going to happen overnight because it is linked with culture and the existing society and university system.

It seems that you are inspired by the US system. Apart from the mobility and system of competitive grants, what are its strengths?

In the US research is institutionalised. So even if you pour more money into the system, the management and university structure allow a rapid response. Over the last 10 years, the US research community has effectively absorbed a doubling in funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In Japan or France or elsewhere, can you absorb a doubling in funding to effectively produce output?

Are there advantages to the Seventh Framework Programme and the European approach to research?

The EU is really expanding so that opportunities for many young or midcareer investigators are expanding, too. There is mobility across national borders so a researcher from, for example, an Eastern European country, for example, can seek better opportunities in Nordic countries, Germany or France. Adding to that the network type of FP7 also helps. Europe will absorb more talented researchers from other EU countries within FP7.

Do you think that centrally-directed research programmes such as the EU’s Framework Programmes and Japan’s Innovation 25 are good ways to encourage innovation?

Yes, mission-oriented research, where you define the research topic through a committee and then issue a call for research proposals, is one good way. But over time, researcher-originated grants give you more creative potential to define your own research. In the US, the majority of NIH (National Institutes of Health) grants are for such investigatororiginated or R01 (Research Project Grant) type research. It’s very competitive, but it works, in parallel with a well-developed peer-review system.

In Japan, the Committee for Science & Technology Policy is responsible for identifying areas and allocating funds, and about half the budget is for investigator-originated research while the other half is for top-down or mission-oriented research.

What research priorities do you think should be going forward?

‘Innovation’ has become a popular keyword over the past decade. I suspect that it is because both the general public and policymakers are looking to scientists to solve the fundamental problems facing mankind – such as climate change, the population explosion and energy security – in addition to expanding the frontiers of science. In the era of ever-widening information sharing through the Internet, people in the developing countries would like to have the same affluence as we have in the rich countries. But at the same time, people in both the developing countries and the developed world recognise that we face global problems that threaten our sustainability. They see science and innovation as offering the solutions.