Prime Minister Stresses Importance of Young Researcher Cultivation to Revive Japan as S&T Leader

In his policy speech on January 18, Japan’s Prime Minister raised concern over the continued stagnation of research power for nearly 20 years and committed the country to improve the situation of young researchers.

For Japan as a leading nation in science and technology, the continued stagnation of research power “is a grave situation” Yoshihide Suga told the Diet, and vowed to ”expand the support for doctoral students”.

The Prime Minister went on to mention the country’s plans for a 10 trillion-yen university fund to create a platform for the cultivation of young talents and to encourage autonomous university management. Moreover, the government’s R&D funding will be increased to 30 trillion yen and the total amount of public and private R&D expenditures to 120 trillion yen over the next five years, he added. Accordingly, the investment to foster young researchers was highlighted in the latest draft of the 6th Science and Technology Basic Plan for the fiscal year 2021-2025, that was announced on January 19.

New programs supporting young researchers

Some measures are already in place. The Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST) launched two new initiatives in 2020, namely the “Fusion Oriented Research for disruptive Science and Technology” (FOREST) program and the “Multifaceted investigation challenge for new normal initiatives” (MILLENIA) project.

The first initiative called FOREST Program aims to fund a total of 700 young researchers over the next three years. The Program calls for challenging and original research that require long-term endeavor, without setting specific issues to be tackled or short-term goals. The program’s idea is based on the importance of creating an environment, where young researchers can focus on ambitious, high-risk research initiatives in order to produce outcomes that will lead to disruptive innovation. To achieve this, the program promotes diversity and supports research areas that are created through the “fusion” of scientific and technical knowledge, expected to transform society and systems.

The second initiative MILLENIA Project is a newly created part of the “Moonshot Research & Development Program”, which was launched by the Japanese Government in 2019. The Moonshot R&D Program aims to promote challenging R&D based on bold ideas to achieve disruptive innovation for solving future social issues. It initially contained seven goals related to Artificial Intelligence, quantum computer etc., whereas in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the new MILLENIA project was newly introduced to tackle challenges of the post-crisis society and economy. MILLENIA aims to create brainstorming teams, composed of young leaders, sub-leaders and not only researchers but also diverse personnel in a variety of sectors and fields to set goals for the “new normal”.

Option to take on bold challenge is key, JST President says

President of the JST, Dr. Michinari Hamaguchi, formulated in an article on Nikkei how Japan’s presence in some research fields has weakened, and that this should be seen as a consequence of Japan’s university and science and technology policy.

With the gradual reduction of subsidies for operating expenses at universities, researchers no longer have funds at their disposal and are no longer able to challenge themselves as their curiosity dictates.

As a result, young researchers concentrate in areas where it is easier to get competitive funding which are often tied to producing short term results. This leads to less experts in some fields and as researchers are bound to the plan of their research fund, they lose the flexibility to change their research focus in response to a pandemic.

For instance, research on virus is an area where the needs are difficult to see unless a pandemic occurs, which is why in Dr. Hamaguchi’s view, the number of researchers has decreased in the past years and has resulted in a relatively weak presence of Japan in COVID-19 related research compared to other fields.

Furthermore, while investment in universities is decreasing and research organizations have become smaller, the field of scientific research is expanding rapidly. Thus, the duties each researcher has to shoulder has grown, making it difficult for assistant professors and others to leave their laboratories to study abroad.

Dr. Michinari Hamaguchi believes that the two new programs are not perfect solutions, but he feels keenly that actions have to be taken. For the sake of Society and humanity he hopes that universities and the people will regain their spirit of challenge and continue to play an active role beyond the Covid-19 pandemic.