Japanese STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) research is showing signs of bouncing back according to the latest data published by the Nature Index 2023 supplement, a supplement to Nature, which examines the policies and trends, opportunities and challenges that lie ahead of Japanese science.
As the world’s third largest economy Japan should be playing a leading role on the research stage, but over the last ten years, data from the Nature Index supplements has documented the country’s ongoing struggles to compete globally in high-quality research. Japan has lagged in science and research compared to smaller economies such as Germany and the United Kingdom, with research output, as measured by the Nature Index, having been in decline since 2015. The latest data in the Nature Index are no exception: Japan’s adjusted article Share (one of the main Nature Index metrics) fell to 3,185 in 2021, a level that represented just 12.6% of Asia Pacific output, down from 21.4% in 2015.
However, despite this decline, there are signs that Japanese science is reaching a turning point and shows a good performance in the life sciences, where adjusted Share, which takes into account small annual variations in the total number of articles in the Index, remained higher in 2021 than in 2019: Japan’s overall adjusted article Share rose by 4.1% from 2019 to 2020 (life sciences rose by 10.5%).
Success in creating spin-off companies from research, and a focus on tailoring support for young researchers are paying dividends. The Index shines a light on five individual successes among that emerging generation of scientists.
There are high hopes that a ¥10-trillion endowment scheme from the government to boost university funding (inspired by the funding models that sustain the Ivy League universities in the United States) could further boost recovery of top-end research. Challenges still remain, however, that will demand more complex solutions than cash injections. There are also concerns about what this could mean for academic independence and whether enough universities in Japan will reap the benefit
Despite its reputation as an automation superpower, Japanese universities are lagging when it comes to robotics breakthroughs. The Nature Index ranks Japan fifth in the world for its overall Share but when Share limited to in AI and robotics research is considered, Japan falls to seventh. None of Japan’s research institutions make it into the top 30 for AI and robotics, based on Share from 2015 to 2021. While South Korea, for example, increased its Share in AI and robotics in the Nature Index by 1,138% between 2015 and 2021, Japan’s increase was 397% over the same time frame. It will be vital for Japan to find ways of incorporating this AI revolution into research on robotics (where historically it has expertise) to regain ground. This is indicative of where Japanese science finds itself today more generally. It is still making impressive gains, but these achievements are fragile and need continual nurturing if they are to endure.
Reflecting on this, David Swinbanks, Founder of the Nature Index, commented: “Following on from the slight rise we saw for Japan in 2020, the adaptability of the research sector is put on display in the supplement. It is great to see the impact of Japan’s innovation around research spin-offs, particularly in the life sciences, and its tailored support to young researchers, supported by targeted government investment, having a positive impact on its research output. This progress has set them on the right path, however it will have to be sustained if we are to see an overall turnaround in fortunes.”
More information about the Nature Index is available at natureindex.com.