Japan's Blastoff In Science

It aims to spend $155 billion to ignite research, but first it must overcome a stodgy education Establishment

For years, basic research has been a national disgrace in Japan. Scientists have sat in dark basements of universities, unable to buy the latest equipment. Hallways are cluttered with filing cabinets, unused chairs, and dusty equipment because of a lack of space--and money for disposal. Coddled by a mismanaged tenure system, researchers avoid taking risks and settle for lackluster results. Not surprisingly, Japan boasts only five Nobel prizes in science, compared with 175 for the U.S.

Japanese recognize the problem and want to fix it. Last month, the government endorsed a plan for investing $155 billion in science and technology over the next five years--a 12.5% annual increase that would double government spending from 1992 levels by 2000. Assuming the funds are allocated, government support would approach 1% of gross domestic product--comparable to that of the U.S.

All of this looks impressive on paper. But the impact of Japan's new master plan is uncertain at best. Insular and ineffective university faculties, a disbursement system that wastes resources, a penchant for big projects that are more applied than basic in nature--all have had a role in stunting Japanese science. For years, the ill effects have been obvious in international comparisons: Scientific publications by Japanese had the lowest impact among major nations from 1991 to 1995 in terms of the number of citations by other researchers (chart, page 78). The new plan addresses some of these issues. But bureaucratic resistance stands in the way of actually achieving them. And as with similar spending programs in the past, the ideal of contributing to global science takes a backseat to long-term industrial goals.

FADING FORMULA. The $155 billion is aimed at 100 national universities and hundreds of private schools that conduct basic research. Administrators hope it will be enough to overhaul the shabby academic labs, finance thousands of postdoctoral fellowships, and launch giant projects in brain science, climate research, and other research fields. Little will flow to Japan's corporate labs. Still, Japanese bureaucrats hope this huge package will spur innovations that will bolster Japan's strength in autos and electronics while helping to cultivate new businesses such as biotechnology.

In many ways, the plan reflects an understanding that Japan's formula for success is in trouble. Against a backdrop of shortened product cycles and abrupt technology shifts, such as the rise of the global Internet, Japan's genius for incremental improvement seems inadequate. "Now, leading-edge technology goes straight into the marketplace," says Akinobu Kasami, Toshiba Corp.'s senior vice-president for research. "So to succeed, we need our own breakthroughs."

As a first step, the science program seeks to stem the disintegration of Japan's science infrastructure, which has reached shocking proportions. "You hear in the U.S. that facilities are not state-of-the-art," said Erich Bloch, a distinguished fellow at the Council on Competitiveness in Washington. "But if you think things are bad here, you should go to Japan." With about $30 billion from the total package, the Science & Technology Agency reckons it can bring its university labs up to snuff.

The spending plan will also help Japan ramp up the number of postdoctoral fellowships. A decade ago, there were hardly any post-docs in the country. By 2000, there may be as many as 10,000. The result: a larger, better-trained pool of scientists.

On the policy side, the program will encourage academics to collaborate more closely with their industry counterparts. Today, faculty members at state-funded schools and government labs are barred from outside work. As a result, "university professors and scientists in government labs in Japan have almost no idea about industry or the marketplace," says Hiroshi Inose, president of the National Science Council, an arm of the Education Ministry. So university research takes place in a vacuum, and companies don't benefit from a flow of fresh ideas.

"TURF BATTLES." Japanese scientists appreciate the government's intentions. But many are calling for more fundamental reform. For one thing, too much power still rests with the Education Ministry, which will disburse nearly half of the $155 billion. The ministry is among Japan's most conservative--and perpetually at odds with other government agencies. Former Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa (1991-93) got a taste of this in the early 1980s, when he fought unsuccessfully with the ministry to put personal computers in schools. "When you're talking about educational reforms, there are turf battles that stand in our way," he says.

Businessmen who have experienced life overseas are also wary of the ministry's role in the new master plan. Toshiba's Kasami, for one, recalls the freedom he enjoyed in Britain back in 1990. Looking for someone to set up and run a 13-person semiconductor research center, Toshiba was able to hire a distinguished Cambridge University physics professor--a move that would be impossible today in Japan. The new plan calls for relaxing the ban on cross-hiring. But discussions on how to do that have barely begun. Kasami worries that the ministry will insist all professors be rotated through industry assignments, rather than let companies pick and choose the people they want.

University teaching appointments are another issue. Faculty members control hiring, which leads to academic inbreeding. About 80% of the faculty at Tokyo University, for instance, graduated from the same departments they teach in. Non-Japanese staff are rare. "There's no real competition in hiring," said American geophysicist Robert J. Geller, one of the few foreigners to receive tenure at Tokyo University. "Most positions are filled through connections."

On the surface, Japan does a better job of supporting big science projects in space, nuclear energy, and other areas. But bureaucrats always have one eye on possible commercial spin-offs. After spending years on the periphery of a government-orchestrated space program, a Japanese consortium of private companies is now negotiating with a unit of Hughes Electronics Corp. to launch more than 10 satellites via Japan's homegrown H-2 rocket between 2000 and 2004. This marks Japan's entry into the commercial launch business--an event that is exciting to industry but contributes nothing to the cause of basic research.

In the past, some of Japan's largest projects have been scuttled by such linkage to commercial goals. The most famous: The 10-year, $500 million Fifth Generation computer project, which in the 1980s sought to develop a computer capable of reasoning. This enterprise fell into the gray zone between basic and applied research and was ill-conceived from the beginning. The Japanese thought they would be able to leapfrog existing computer knowhow. But the basic groundwork in cognitive science wasn't ready. Not only did young Japanese software developers fall short of their goal, but they missed the advent of the Internet and became also-rans in software.


Not everyone in Japan is pessimistic about the program--especially with respect to its chances of furthering industrial objectives. The plan assures that there will be a larger pool of scientists who will help Corporate Japan spot important developments around the globe. Cross-fertilization between private and public sectors will also be a boon. That, plus abundant new funds, mean "the scientific research atmosphere will quickly change," predicts Kato Koichi, secretary-general of the Liberal Democratic Party and a key supporter of bigger science spending.

Sadly, however, Japan's master plan will probably come up short on its scientific goals. Deeper reforms will be sacrificed as education bureaucrats settle for cosmetic changes, leaving the basic, top-down control system in place. In terms of science, Japan's return on its huge investment is likely to be small. The flowering of homegrown innovations that Japanese academe desires and industry requires if it is to lead in the 21st century may be a long time coming.

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