Japan has traditionally been seen as a scientific giant in Asia – an economic powerhouse that boasts numerous Nobel laureates as well as world-class universities and well-funded government laboratories.
Yet findings published earlier this year by research-data specialist Thomson Reuters show that the impact of Japanese research, measured in terms of citation averages, is considerably lower today than that of the other G7 nations.
Now, the latest Global Research Report from the firm has shone light on the reasons for this decline. It suggests that the country’s relatively low number of international collaborations may be a key problem.
The report, released last month, says that despite its longstanding scientific reputation, Japan’s “lost decade” of economic stagnation, which occurred after the country’s economy peaked during the 1980s, appears to have taken its toll on research.
It records that Japan’s overall share of global research production slipped from 9.45 per cent in 2000 to 6.75 per cent in 2009 – although it points out that other mature economies also lost global share in the face of greater output and increasing international participation by developing nations such as China and India.
The US, for example, saw its overall share fall from 33.5 per cent in 2000 to 28.5 per cent in 2009, while the UK’s dropped from 9.43 per cent to 7.68 per cent.
But the report also notes that the output of other developed countries, including the UK, France and Australia, continued to rise, albeit slowly, whereas Japan’s remained static.
Japan’s total number of papers declined in six out of 16 subjects between the periods 2000-04 and 2005-09, including physics, traditionally its strongest suit. The country’s global share of papers in physics also fell, as it did in all the other subjects measured bar geosciences.
However, the report also notes that Japan boasts “areas of excellence”, including space sciences, immunology, plant and animal science and geosciences, in which its share of highly cited papers exceeds its world share of papers overall.
The country’s impact in these areas also rose over the same period, while citation averages saw “substantial” increases for Japanese papers in space science, chemistry, microbiology and immunology.
The paper concludes that a contributing factor to Japan’s “underperformance” could be its low rate of international collaboration.
Go Yoshida, professor of international strategic planning at Nagoya University, pointed out that a closer look at the results showed that Japan’s former imperial universities were doing relatively well, but the country’s international average was being dragged down by its private and public universities, which make up the majority of institutions in its academy.
But he agreed that increased internationalisation in Japanese universities was desirable.
Loet Leydesdorff, an associate professor at the University of Amsterdam’s School of Communications Research, who has studied Japanese research policy, urged caution when applying international measures to the country.
He noted that the cost per publication of Japanese research was two or three times greater than that of the UK, but this was because a great deal of Japanese research was published in Japanese journals that were not monitored by international citation databases.
Yuan Sun, associate professor at Japan’s National Institute of Informatics and a collaborator with Professor Leydesdorff on a number of papers, said this Japanese-language research tended to be industry-funded and applied – a symptom of the fact that Japanese business had become less interested in the kind of basic research that lent itself to international collaboration.
She said her recent research had revealed that Japanese research involving international collaborations had received two or three times more citations in some fields than purely domestic research.
“In this sense, I think international collaboration can be considered an effective way to improve the impact of Japanese papers,” she said.
Nobuko Miyairi, one of the authors of the most recent Thomson Reuters report on Japan and the data company’s principal research consultant on the Asia-Pacific region, said Japanese universities were particularly concerned about how their relative lack of international collaboration affected interdisciplinary work, “which is widely acknowledged as being a key source of innovation”.
She cited a Japanese government White Paper on science and technology, published last year, which shows that Japanese levels of international co-authorship are approximately half that of France, Germany and the UK.
The Japanese government appears to be responding to the concerns.
In 2008, it formulated its Global 30 initiative, which will provide 13 selected Japanese universities with funding of between ¥200 million and ¥400 million a year (£1.5 million to £3 million) over the next five years to internationalise.
By 2020, 10 per cent of the staff at the participating universities will be expected to hail from overseas, and the institutions will also be required to recruit 300,000 international students by that date.
Measures to attract foreigners will include English-only degree programmes, as well as specialist support and tailored classes in Japanese language and culture for overseas students.
Each university will also have two overseas offices to aid recruitment and boost the numbers of Japanese students studying abroad.
Professor Yoshida agreed that increased use of and proficiency in English was crucial to boosting Japan’s international presence and standing.
“The issue is often not the lack of talent and innovation, but the lack of linguistic skills, namely English,” he said.
But he added that Japan had been making progress in this area even before the Global 30 programme was launched.
“More and more Japanese universities are making it possible to do their graduate programmes in English, which would imply that more and more publications, including dissertations, would be acceptable in English,” he said.
Yet collaboration need not always be with Western institutions. Another factor that might have held Japan back, according to the Thomson Reuters report, was the lack of opportunities for fruitful collaboration with its close neighbours.
“The quality of research has improved markedly in some institutions across the Asia-Pacific region and that pattern is likely to become pervasive,” the report continues.
“The leading institutions will want to partner with established regional centres of excellence. Japan could benefit enormously in gaining access by joining new partners with new ideas who are just a few hours’ flight away.”
The opportunities for local collaboration also appear to have been recognised by the region’s rulers.
Last year, the governments of Japan, China and South Korea launched the Campus Asia project to promote collaboration among their researchers.
The group met for the first time in April to discuss how to ensure the quality of exchange programmes.
But Professor Leydesdorff said he was not sure that such initiatives would succeed.
He noted that the Japanese government’s drive in the 1990s to stimulate collaboration between universities and industry had coincided with a significant decline in co-authorship between university scholars and industrial researchers.
“In my opinion, the system develops according to its own logic, perhaps even more so than comparable systems in the West,” he said.
He also remained sceptical about the strength of Japan’s desire to improve its position in international comparisons.
“While China, for example, tries to adapt to Western standards, I doubt whether these standards play a major role within Japan other than in official policy documents,” he said.
“The Japanese system is more oriented internally: outside assessments matter, but they are not likely to change the operation of the system internally.”