From where I sit - Say sayonara to globalisation

August 11, 2011

I have just received the feedback on my first (unsuccessful) funding application to the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS), the main Japanese research funding body. My sorry experience suggests that the whole system creates yet another barrier to the globalisation of the Japanese academy.

Despite the word "science" in its name, JSPS also funds social science and arts and humanities research, and channels the bulk of public funding for research in Japan. Applications can be for very small grants, which would typically cover a few conference or data-gathering trips; mid-sized grants, which must be for a minimum of three years but for which the maximum amount available will barely cover a research assistant for a year; and large projects, covering everything from a three-year research assistant post to a five-year project with major capital outlay and multiple researchers.

Applicants are restricted to making a single application for the main "responsive-mode" type grants each year; and these applications all go in at the same time, in early autumn, with decisions given in time for the beginning of the next academic year in April.

This one application per year rule, combined with a strict limit on the funds that can be held by any individual as the principal investigator, means that success rates are reasonable - about 30 per cent for my field this year.

But the nature of the feedback, and its timing, well after the decisions are announced, are frankly rather odd. The JSPS would do well to learn from the processes adopted by the UK research councils over the past 10 to 15 years.

The feedback comprises a combination of short textual and numerical assessments. The numerical assessments provide the average results of the reviews - not the raw data of the separate reviews - and the short comments are not assigned to an anonymised identity for each reviewer. This makes it impossible to tell whether the reviewers all had differing concerns that dragged the overall numerical averages below the required values, or whether a single reviewer was adrift from the others. More worryingly, there is no opportunity to respond to reviewer comments. A suggestion by one reviewer, for example, that the team might not be able to deliver clearly requires a right of reply because it provides reviewers with a veto bombshell that can be dropped on any proposal that, for whatever reason, a reviewer feels disposed to disqualifying.

In most peer-review systems, a single negative review can be the death knell; sensible systems provide at the very least a facility to respond. In my case, the advice from locals is that even experienced overseas researchers joining Japanese universities at professorial level and bringing with them a significant track record must, in effect, start from scratch and apply first for medium-sized grants. These can then be used as the platform for applying for larger follow-on grants.

The strange size of the mid-level grant, requiring a three-year project but only allowing for research-assistant funding for one year, militates against the quick assimilation of senior overseas researchers into Japanese institutions.

But forcing experienced researchers from overseas to take a backward step before being able to build up to anything like a significant research team is yet another barrier to globalisation in a Japan that is looking alarmingly introspective.

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