Japan: Land of the 'Science Deficit' Though a Leader in Technology Innovation, Japan Lags Behind the West in Basic Research, despite Pressures for Change

By Clayton Jones, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 30, 1991 | Go to article overview

Japan: Land of the 'Science Deficit' Though a Leader in Technology Innovation, Japan Lags Behind the West in Basic Research, despite Pressures for Change


Clayton Jones, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


IN the watery depths of Tokyo Bay rests a most unusual relic of Japan's last high point as a nation of science: a cyclotron.

This particle accelerator, once used by physicists to probe nature's innermost forces, was dumped in the sea after World War II by the United States military on the suspicion that it might someday be used by the Japanese to learn how to make a nuclear bomb - despite Japan having been the only nation ever to be victim of one.

Many of Japan's best scientific labs were broken up during the American occupation, and now, in a twist of history some 45 years later, the United States is strongly urging Japan to boost its basic research - and, ironically, to also buy into a new cyclotron.

The US wants Japan to help pay for the Superconducting Supercollider that, if finished by the turn of the century as expected, would be the world's largest scientific instrument.

Priced at $8.49 billion, the oval-shaped apparatus would use the latest discoveries in super-conducting magnets to propel bits of atoms around a 54-mile underground tunnel in northeast Texas.

"This project seeks to discover the very basic mysteries of science and life itself," says Deputy US Secretary of Energy W. Henson Moore.

A year-long US lobbying effort in Japan will culminate with a visit to Tokyo by President Bush in late November, when he is expected to press Japanese leaders to put up over $1 billion for the project.

Participation by Japan "would represent a very highly visible Japanese demonstration that it accepts the mantle of leadership" in basic science, says Allan Bromley, Bush's science and technology adviser, who was in Tokyo recently to lay the groundwork for the president's visit.

A reluctance by Japan to back the supercollider has become the latest symbol of a new friction in US-Japanese relations: a disparity in the flows of science and technology between the two nations. Some analysts say such friction may surpass the bilateral trade tension that rose in the 1980s.

While Japan excels in the incremental innovation and manufacturing of technology, it is accused of "freeloading" off the ideas of Western science without advancing the frontiers of basic knowledge.

Both Bush and former President Reagan have helped Japan to deflect this criticism that it reaps rather than sows the fruits of science by coaxing it to join international projects, ranging from the US-led space station to fusion research.

"Politicians in Japan say that they can't win votes by supporting basic research," says Hiroshi Inose, director-general of the National Center for Science Information. "We lack leadership in science."

But Suzanne D. Berger, head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) political science department says: "The Japanese have to come up with something on research. They can't continue to borrow from abroad."

She adds that American leaders are more and more worried about the slippage of US technological superiority, with American universities under pressure to restrict foreign access so as to prevent an outflow of science and technology.

Japanese corporations, for instance, have funded 26 "chairs" for professors at MIT, more than at the University of Tokyo. And a few dozen Japanese companies pay for special access to MIT researchers.

"The idea is that foreign companies are coming into MIT and cream-skimming off the best ideas," Dr. Berger says. "There is a very, very strong movement to curtail this" in the name of national security, despite the threat to academic freedom.

Japan sends over 25,000 researchers to the US each year, while only 5,000 Americans go to Japanese universities or labs, points out Erich Bloch, former director of the National Science Foundation and now a distinguished fellow at the Council on Competitiveness.

The US also exports an estimated $1.5 billion in technology to Japan, he says, three times as much as Japan sends in the reverse direction. …

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