Enhancing Innovation: Funding People, Not Projects

Japan’s past as a scientific powerhouse is well documented, in no small part by its many Nobel Laureates. But what will be of Japan’s scientific future? Some of Japan’s most prominent scientists, including Yoshinori Ohsumi and Takaaki Kajita, have expressed their concerns on this. A 2017 report in Nature Index highlighted Japan’s stagnating scientific output, a particularly troubling picture when compared to the significant increases in publication quality and total output by other Asian countries like China and South Korea, and further troubling if one considers the key role of top publications in originating and developing new technologies. How can Japan reverse this trend to preserve its global reputation in scientific research and, most importantly, increase innovation?

First, one must analyze the cause of this downward trend. One problem is that Japan’s research budget has not changed since 2001, while other nations have significantly increased funding. Additionally, following the incorporation of national universities in 2004, the government opted to reduce university subsidies in favor of competitive grant funding. Scientists couldn’t rely on universities to fund their research, thus many had to direct their time and efforts away from the lab to prepare grant applications for competitive funds. Additionally, a 2017 Nature editorial suggests that budget cuts and funding issues have created a situation in Japan in which universities opt to hire researchers as contract employees rather than full-time professors. This funding instability and job insecurity in turn forces researchers to pursue low-risk projects with higher likelihoods of being funded. Nobel Laureate Robert Lefkowitz described competitive grant funding systems perfectly when he said “There’s a current problem in biomedical research. The emphasis is on doing things which are not risky. To have a grant proposal funded, you have to propose something and then present what is called preliminary data, which is basically evidence that you’ve already done what you’re proposing to do. If there’s any risk involved, then your proposal won’t be funded.”

So how can Japan encourage innovative, high-risk research amongst scientists? By funding creative people, not projects. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute in the U.S. and Wellcome Trust in the U.K. as well as the Max Planck Society in Germany are prime examples of this type of funding system. If Japan is serious about enhancing creativity and innovation, the government should strongly consider moving away from conventional project-based competitive funding and instead favor stable, longer-term funding that scientists can use to pursue questions of their choosing. The more freedom granted to scientists, the better. The European Research Council’s sole criterion of “scientific excellence” in funding projects has garnered fantastic results in this respect, yielding six Nobel Prizes, four Fields Medals and over 100,000 publications from ERC grantees.

For Japan, supporting the next generation of researchers is required to reverse the current scientific decline. Part of this necessitates eliminating hierarchical systems within both universities and funding agencies to allow early career scientists to grow as stably-funded independent researchers. The other part is to invest more money into grant schemes that provide stable, high-trust funding to junior professors, similar to the ERC’s Starting Grants.

Japan has slowly been making progress in reorganizing its funding system to allow more novel ideas. The high-trust funding scheme to the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University is indicative of positive change. However, success of this is limited without a larger government investment in science and technology. As neighboring countries continue to outpace Japan in terms of spending increases, they will also continue to outperform in terms of publication rate increases and breakthrough innovations. Even in tough economic times, Japan shouldn’t opt to miss out on Nobel-worthy research for the sake of austerity. Hence, support for basic research should be viewed as investment into the future, and not as a subsidy!

By Dr. Peter Gruss, President/CEO, Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST)

The Japanese translation of this article was published on July 23, 2018 under the title "革新力強化、人に投資を" as part of a series in the "卓見異見" (Tekken Iken) column of the newspaper "Nikkan Kogyo Shimbun."

See the full list of the president's contributions to "Tekken Iken" (Japanese).