More Yen for Japan's University Research System

By Swinbanks, David | Research-Technology Management, January/February 1992 | Go to article overview

More Yen for Japan's University Research System


Swinbanks, David, Research-Technology Management


After years of neglect, Japan is about to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into renovation and reformation of its university research system. The refurbishing, which will begin in the coming fiscal year, is in part motivated by a fear among government and industry that Japan will run seriously short of researchers early next century unless something is done to attract Japanese students back to science and engineering.

Under budget proposals for fiscal 1992 submitted by the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture at the end of August, the ministry will pour an extra 75,000 million yen ($575 million) into the renovation and rebuilding of Japan's universities over the next five years. The ministry has also requested an unusually large 10 percent boost in competitive research grants for university research to 65,100 million yen ($500 million) for fiscal 1992.

Extra funds are also being pumped into postdoctoral and graduate fellowships for university researchers and into reform and strengthening of the graduate school of Tokyo University, Japan's leading national university. The budget requests are subject to approval by the Ministry of Finance, but they are expected to be accepted with only minor change.

Western scientists who visit Japan are often dismayed by the rundown condition of research laboratories in Japan's leading national universities. As one British postdoctoral fellow recently put it in a guidebook for foreign scientists coming to Japan: "I expected to find gleaming new, well-equipped laboratories. Instead, I found a crowded, underfunded laboratory in a shabby building which hasn't been decorated for 20 years, and which contains a lot of equipment that would be better housed in a science museum."

Overborrowed on Pork

The neglect of Japan's universities stands in stark contrast to the common Western perception that Japan, as one of the most successful economies in the world, is overflowing with wealth and money. But in fact, the Japanese government, having overborrowed on pork barrel projects such as bullet train lines in the 1960s and early 1970s, is up to its neck in debt. A strict policy of government fiscal restraint has been in effect since the early 1980s to fight the red ink, and, as a result, government research institutes, in particular the universities, have been starved of funds, staff and space for years.

The situation is particularly bad in the universities, because the highly conservative Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, which runs them, devotes most of its budget to schools and undergraduate education; the parts of the ministry responsible for university research at the graduate level and above have comparatively little power or budget.

But in recent years, forces both inside and outside the universities have begun to put irresistable pressure on the ministry to rectify the situation. Industry and the powerful Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) have become seriously concerned that Japan will soon run short of skilled reasearchers to power growth of Japan's high-tech industry.

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