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Pro-Science Stimulus to Revitalize Japan’s R&D

Japan is striving to expand its scientific opportunities and connect globally. 

Today, after two decades of economic stagnation, Japan's vitality and dynamism is almost palpable. As part of Prime Minister Shinzō Abe's Japan Revitalization Strategy, the country has set its sights on strengthening efforts in research and development, improving health technology and services, and elevating the status of its universities as well as reaching out globally for knowledge sharing and talent circulation. By Julian Tang

Science and technology research has been a reliable pillar of the Japanese economy. The steadily increasing national research budget acknowledges the importance of research and development (R&D) for the country as well as its role in finding solutions to Japan's urban, environmental, and economic challenges. For instance, in August 2014 the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT)—the leading official body in coordinating and funding science and technology initiatives in Japan—requested US$11.1 billion for science and technology spending in its proposed budget for the next fiscal year. This represents an 18% increase from the previous year. At the same time, MEXT is targeting US$2.4 billion—a 5.8% increase—to grants-in-aid for scientific research to fund individuals, universities, and research centers.

"Under [the Brain/MINDS] project, we will address a fundamental question in neuroscience: How does the human mind work?" — Akira Yoshida

Areas of focus for R&D efforts

Providing sufficient research funding will enable Japanese scientists to respond to the country's changing landscape. As part of the Japan Revitalization Strategy, officially approved by the Cabinet in June 2013, the government aims to position Japan as the "world's most innovation-friendly country." The government has identified five main goals to achieve by 2030: a clean and economical energy system, a healthy and active aging society, a framework of next generation infrastructures, substantial economic benefits through regional and international collaborations, and a complete recovery from the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. To meet these goals, the government has set a target of at least 4% of GDP for total R&D investment by the public and private sectors, and at least 1% of GDP invested in R&D by the government.

Promoting international, interdisciplinary research

Hitoshi Murayama

Hitoshi Murayama

Photo: Yuuko Enomoto

In 2007, MEXT established the World Premier International (WPI) Research Center Initiative to attract top-flight researchers from around the world to the initial five—now nine—designated centers. These centers, which include the Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe (Kavli IPMU), are granted a significant level of autonomy to encourage revolutionary and innovative research. "Access to world-class facilities, and the opportunity to interact and collaborate with researchers across various disciplines, are some of the many appealing aspects of conducting research at a WPI center," says Hitoshi Murayama, Kavli IPMU director, who has extensive overseas research experience and understands the importance of global talent circulation. "In addition to allowing our researchers to go overseas to gain ample international exposure, we invite world-leading researchers here regularly to share their ideas and knowledge."

Kavli IPMU's interdisciplinary approach, which bridges the gap among mathematics, physics, and astronomy, is helping researchers in these fields to achieve new advances. The Subaru Measurements of Images and Redshifts (SuMIRe) project, which involves collaborations with Princeton University, the California Institute of Technology, the Max Planck Institutes, and other research organizations from Japan, Taiwan, and Brazil, has already completed its first instrument—a three-ton imaging camera—that will allow for a "cosmic census" of each galaxy. The next stage is to build an US$80 million spectrograph to extend the census. "Just like a population census, a large-scale cosmic census allows us to get the full picture of how a system works and behaves," explains Murayama. "We would be able to determine distances to the galaxies and study the physical properties of stellar and gas compositions in each galaxy."

"Under [the Brain/MINDS] project, we will address a fundamental question in neuroscience: How does the human mind work?" — Akira Yoshida

"Under [the Brain/MINDS] project, we will address a fundamental question in neuroscience: How does the human mind work?" — Akira Yoshida

Photo: Akira Yoshida

To maintain its foothold in large-scale, world-class research, Japan has launched its own Brain Mapping by Integrated Neurotechnologies for Disease Studies (Brain/MINDS) project, in line with the increasing interest in brain-mapping projects around the world, such as the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative project in the United States and the Human Brain Project (HBP) in Europe. The Brain Science Institute (BSI) at RIKEN, Japan's largest research organization, and the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST), an interdisciplinary graduate university located at the southernmost tip of Japan, have been collaborating with the HBP since 2013 and applying their expertise in supercomputer-based models and simulations. Recently, BSI RIKEN and OIST were also invited by MEXT to be part of the 17-institute Brain/MINDS project, with BSI RIKEN as the core administrative and research facility. "Under this project, we will address a fundamental question in neuroscience: How does the human mind work?" reveals Akira Yoshida, research coordinator at BSI RIKEN. "The project's goal is to accelerate the development of technologies for mapping the brain's circuitry in animal models, specifically in the marmoset monkey, whose neural circuits are much closer to human compared with rodent models, and to connect the results to the diagnosis and treatment of human neurological disorders and mental illness."

Amid these dynamic developments, Japanese universities are not being overlooked. MEXT has launched the Program for Promoting the Enhancement of Research Universities, choosing 22 universities to lead the country's efforts in advancing science and technology. The financial support ranges from US$2 million to US$4 million annually for 10 years. The selected institutes include well-established former Imperial Universities such as The University of Tokyo, Kyoto University, and Osaka University, and private institutes such as Keio University and Waseda University. Despite the differences, the chosen universities have all made kokusaika ("internationalization") one of their highest priorities. They share an impressive track record of increasing the number of overseas researchers and students, improving international collaborations, introducing English language courses for students, training administration staff to produce bilingual documents, and introducing new salary scales to commensurate with institutes in Western countries.

Global collaborations

To support globalization projects, MEXT further selected 37 Japanese universities in September 2014 to become Super Global Universities, providing an annual subsidy from US$100 million to US$400 million to each of the chosen institutes over the next 10 years for personnel training, recruitment of international researchers, and improvement of university facilities. In parallel, MEXT has launched personnel exchange programs such as Research in Japan and Japan-Asia Youth Exchange Program in Science as well as joint research initiatives with East Asian nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Under MEXT's exchange programs, Japan has hosted over 30,000 international researchers in the last few years, while 150,000 local researchers have had the opportunity to pursue their studies overseas. "Under the forward-thinking leadership of MEXT, Japanese research organizations and academic institutions are certainly progressing towards globalization," notes Jonathan Dorfan, president of OIST. "When people free themselves from their traditional boundaries and come together to share ideas and information, big things can happen."

In a move to promote global health, the Department of Health Policy at The National Center for Child Health and Development (NCCHD), the largest maternal and pediatric hospital in the country, has been collaborating with the World Health Organization and the Japanese branch of the Cochrane Collaboration to improve clinical practice guidelines and maternal and child health in developing countries such as Mongolia and Sri Lanka. The hospital welcomes researchers from developing nations to share their research know-how. In return, these researchers, who usually face a shortage of technology and physical infrastructures, have access to the sophisticated instruments and facilities in Japan.

Meanwhile, in the private sector, Japan has also become the first nation to approve commercialization of a first-line drug for psoriasis vulgaris and psoriatic arthritis from the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis. The drug, sold under the name Cosentyx, is considered by experts to have a market value of US$1–2.5 billion annually. The city of Yokohama is also anticipating the construction of Apple's new, large-scale R&D facility, one that Prime Minister Abe pointed out would provide significant employment opportunities and is comparable to the company's largest existing R&D facilities in Asia.

Translational research and initiatives for a healthier future

"It is crucial for every child to be followed up annually until the age of 21 by a pediatrician—as is done in the United States—to detect hereditary disorders and pediatric diseases as early as possible. We are working towards implementing a similar syste

"It is crucial for every child to be followed up annually until the age of 21 by a pediatrician—as is done in the United States—to detect hereditary disorders and pediatric diseases as early as possible. We are working towards implementing a similar syste

Globally, the areas of maternal health and pediatrics are often overlooked, with too little funding being allocated and too few trials conducted. However, to safeguard the well-being of future generations, it is crucial to tackle genetic conditions and diseases in the pediatric population. NCCHD understands the importance of establishing a research-intensive hospital to address these issues. Takashi Igarashi, president and chief executive officer of NCCHD, strives to bring together clinicians and basic scientists both at the domestic and international level. "We believe that medicine and basic research are complementary to each other. Clinicians are well-versed with the human body and the delicate use of surgeries and drugs, while scientists understand the intricacies of how the body functions at the molecular and cellular level," he explains. "Tackling childhood diseases at an early stage allows for a healthier general population in the long run." NCCHD is the only hospital in the country that performs fetal surgery, particularly for cases with twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome, a rare condition in which the blood supply in the shared placenta is unequally distributed, leading to one twin lacking the necessary nutrients for normal growth and survival. The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW) has designated NCCHD as the principal center to establish a national registry of rare pediatric diseases.

Further, NCCHD is leading the effort to introduce "Bright Futures," a national children's health promotion initiative that has been adopted by the American Academy of Pediatrics for well-child care, in Japan. "It is crucial for every child to be followed up annually until the age of 21 by a pediatrician—as is done in the United States—to detect hereditary disorders and pediatric diseases as early as possible," notes Igarashi. "We are working towards implementing a similar system here in Japan."

The journey ahead

Over the next 15–20 years, Japan must tackle key economic, human power, and demographic issues such as a declining birth rate, an aging population, and the challenge of sustaining a sufficiently skilled labor force. Furthermore, Japan is facing rising competition from regional nations in terms of attracting foreign talent and boosting research output. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development's (OECD) Science, Technology and Industry Outlook 2014, a review of key trends in science, technology, and innovation policies, and performance in more than 45 economies, South Korea and China are now the primary destinations for researchers from the United States and experienced a net "brain gain" over the period 1996–2011. South Korea also became the world's most R&D-intensive country in 2012, spending 4.36% of its GDP on R&D, versus an OECD average of 2.4%. The 2013 SCImago Journal and Country Rank list shows that Japan is also lagging behind China in terms of the number of scientific publications.

Nonetheless, the Abe government expects a prompt return on its investment in research. About a quarter of the science stimulus in the Japan Revitalization Strategy—some US$1.8 billion—is allocated for commercialization of university research. Much of the rest is for projects with industrial or clinical applications. The stimulus, for instance, will also aid in the renovation of the RIKEN SPring-8 synchrotron, one of the top photon science research facilities in the world, and the construction of data links between Japan's universities and RIKEN's K supercomputer, the world's fastest computer in 2011 and still ranked fourth today.

As MEXT's Program for Promoting the Enhancement of Research Universities moves forward, improving global rankings and attracting top-class foreign researchers are two of the main challenges. Despite having the honor of producing the largest number of Nobel Prize laureates in Asia, Japan is not well represented in the ranking tables for global universities. With only two universities listed in the top 100 2014–2015 Times Higher Education World University Rankings, Japan is on par with Singapore, China, and Hong Kong, but behind South Korea, which has three. Many of the universities have declared that part of the MEXT program's funding will be used to push their institutes higher in the rankings by the end of the 10-year program.

To nurture the next generation of researchers and health professionals, NCCHD has acquired funding from the MHLW to provide new training opportunities. "It is important to equip younger members of our community with up-to-date knowledge and training. We need to adopt new ideas and system reforms to cater to the demands of this evolving world, especially in a country like Japan where we experience many dynamic changes and challenges," states Igarashi, who emphasizes the importance of maintaining R&D and science education funding to make research careers attractive to young clinicians and scientists in Japan and around the world.

How and whether the Japanese government's effort will pay off remains to be seen. However, one thing is certain: Globalization is inevitable and Japan realizes it. Murayama sums it up, "We need to make a conscious effort to expand our horizons and stay connected globally. Looking at Japan in the context of this global community is like looking at the universe with the most powerful camera, we gain a new perspective by seeing the big picture."

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