Editorial: To step up its global competitiveness, Japan needs to foster young researchers

August 24 , 2022

On August 9, the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology released a report that found Japan’s standing among the world’s science and technology research community had slipped to a record low. The report noted that Japan placed 12th in the “papers of highest interest” category between 2018-2020, a measure of research excellence that has seen the country sliding from a high of fourth place 20 years ago.

The top two countries in the category were China followed by the US.

Being as poor in natural resources as Japan, our country must remain competitive, even dominant, in some areas of the sci-tech domain. The latest report represents a bombshell that has shaken the very foundations of the Japanese sci-tech community.

One of the key factors for the slippage: the lack of young, upcoming researchers. Indeed, the number of holders of doctoral degrees peaked out in fiscal 2006 in Japan and has steadily declined ever since, a number less than half that awarded in the US and China over the same timeframe.

Why aren’t more Japanese youth drawn to research? Many older researchers point to unstable employment opportunities and quality of life uncertainties that result.

Komeito has been actively pushing to rectify the researcher shortage: one such initiative, which the government adopted in January 2020, seeks to double the number of university instructors under the age of 40 and provides living expenses so that university students with doctorates can focus on their research.

Another proposal currently being advanced by the party is to significantly increase state support to improve their working conditions, combined with offering diverse career opportunities as well as enhanced support to fast-growing startup enterprises in innovative sci-tech fields.

And these are only the first in many needed steps to ensure Japan continue to remain in viable contention with other countries in this immensely strategic domain.