Japanese government urges young scientists towards industry

With permanent academic jobs scarce, young researchers on temporary contracts are nervous about the future. The government wants industry to utilize their talents.

23 March 2018

Smriti Mallapaty

Credit: Tamotsu Kashiwagi

A researcher at the Control System Engineering Laboratory, at Hiroshima University, which is a big supporter of linking graduates with industry.

For the past three years, Hirotaka Kawashima has been worried about his fate. The 37-year-old scientometrics researcher from Tokyo is among the thousands of early-career researchers in Japan on a short-term work contract. He may soon be out of a job.

“I am very worried,” says Kawashima, who has a doctoral degree in cognitive neuroscience and is employed as a research fellow at the National Institute of Science and Technology Policy (NISTEP) until March 2018. “I have no future positions,” he says. “Most of my researcher friends have fixed-term positions,” says Kawashima.

Kawashima and his colleague, Yasuhiro Yamashita, who is also on a fixed-term contract, recently analysed the academic employment database JREC-IN Portal, which is maintained by the Japan Science and Technology Agency. They found that 71% of the job postings for assistant professors, published between 2012 and 2015, were for limited terms.

With few prospects for landing a permanent job in academia or national research institutes, recent graduates and postdoctoral researchers in Japan are being forced to abandon their scientific ambitions.

The talent drain will make it more difficult to arrest the decline in Japanese science. A separate NISTEP study found that between 2004 and 2012, junior scientists contributed to almost 70% of the papers published by the top 44 most productive Japanese universities in the Web of Science database.

“Early-career researchers are important for conceiving and testing new ideas and introducing disruptive innovation. We need to create better policies that support them,” says Yuko Harayama, an executive member of the prime minister’s science advisory body, the Council for Science, Technology and Innovation.

The Japanese government is aware of the problem, and has introduced several initiatives over the past decades to increase the number of permanent jobs available to young researchers. But these actions have yielded few measurable gains, says Harayama. Now, the government is making overtures to the private sector with a view to taking graduates outside academia entirely. “We really want to invite companies to be a part of this story,” says Harayama.

Transient workers

Government policies are partly to blame for the predicament of young researchers, says Harayama. Since the early 2000s, management expense grants for national universities, which are used to pay wages for permanent staff, have been reduced by about 1% every year. To compensate for these cuts, the government has funnelled more money into competitive funding schemes, such as Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research (KAKENHI), which support remuneration only for short-term projects. The salaries of many young researchers are tied to these fixed-term programmes.

Young researchers are very good at winning KAKENHI grants, says Atsushi Kogirama, director of the Scientific Research Aid Division at the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). So good, in fact, that the ministry decided to discontinue one of two categories specifically catering to young researchers in 2018. “In many KAKENHI grant categories, the adoption rate of researchers 39 years old or younger is higher than that of all researchers,” says Kogirama.

But they aren’t as good at nabbing permanent jobs. In the group of 11 top Japanese research universities alone, only 10.9% of tenured researchers were under 40 in 2013 — down from 18.8% in 2007. Meanwhile, the proportion of under-40s on fixed-term contracts has increased from 14.5% in 2007 to 20.3% in 2013.

Overall, the proportion of university faculty under 40 has decreased from 39% in 1986 to 24% in 2016, while every other age group has become more prevalent. Postgraduate figures were at 15,910 in 2015, down from a peak of 17,945 in 2008. These trends have turned students off science in Japan. The percentage of doctoral graduates in the natural sciences and engineering relative to the total population has dropped from 13% in 2008 to 12% in 2013. In comparison, graduate populations in the United States, South Korea and China have all risen.

“The younger generation today are cautious and pragmatic,” says Harayama. “If a career path does not provide for them in the long term, they will change direction.”

In Japan, unlike many other research-intensive countries, PhD students largely have to cover their own school fees, pension and living expenses. This often means taking on a loan, says astronomer Nobuhiro Okabe at Hiroshima University. Around half of postdocs are lucky enough to score a permanent position, but the best the rest can hope for after graduation is a five-year fixed contract, the longest that are generally permissible under the Labor Standards Act. The law “forces young researchers to be in bad environments,” Okabe says.

Holding on

Okabe is among the lucky ones. After completing a PhD at Tohoku University in 2005, he jumped from one competitive grant to another, followed by a four-year stint in Taiwan and a one-year fellowship back in Japan. But in 2015, he joined a tenure-track programme at Hiroshima. “I thought this was my last chance to get a permanent position,” says Okabe, who studies the invisible dark matter that pervades the Universe.

The programme was part of a government initiative, introduced in 2006 and modelled on the US system, offering postgraduates with less than ten years of experience a route to stability.

Okabe hopes to meet the tough criteria for gaining tenure and win a permanent contract in 2019. Every year a few hundred more researchers get in line for the national programme, including 208 in 2016.

Nevertheless, the tenure-track system has made a negligible dent on the job market. Tenure job postings in the JREC-IN portal have not budged beyond 4,500-5,000 per year in the past decade, according to Kawashima’s analysis at NISTEP.

In 2016, the government set a target to increase the number of university researchers under 40 by 10% by 2020 from a starting point of 43,763 researchers in 2013. While it’s too early to assess progress, says Harayama, the council is setting in motion several other proposals to nudge up the numbers. These include offering attractive packages to senior staff for early retirement, and narrowing the salary difference between junior and senior staff.

Going private

Recently, the government’s focus has been on taking graduates outside academia entirely.

Toshiyuki Misu, a physicist who is assistant director of the Global Career Design Center at Hiroshima University, is facilitating this transformation. Before moving to Hiroshima in 2014, Misu spent nine years at NISTEP studying the Japanese graduate employment landscape.

He and his colleagues analysed the career paths of a quarter of the country’s postdoctorate population, finding that very few doctorate graduates ended up in industry.

Of the more than 3,800 researchers surveyed, only 68 joined the private research and development workforce. Three-quarters continued to work as postdoctoral researchers in academia. A 2012 survey by NISTEP of the entire Japanese postdoctorate population proved consistent: just 106 of the almost 13,000 researchers whose careers could be traced took up R&D positions in a company.

Since Misu’s study, the government has introduced several initiatives to encourage universities to form connections with companies as a conduit for science careers for younger generations.

Hiroshima has supported training on leadership and communication skills and internships at partnering companies for nearly 100 graduate students. The programmes are gradually convincing students, faculty, and companies of the merits of bringing PhD graduates into the corporate sector, says Misu. “We should inform industry that it needs these highly skilled researchers for innovation.”

More movement is afoot. In 2016, the government launched the Leading Initiative for Excellent Young Researchers to match 100 young scientists with tenure-track programmes in academia, government or industry every year, with the option for joint appointments.

And in 2017, it started a five-year programme to encourage young researchers to establish start-ups. “Young people are highly motivated to contribute to society and global challenges,” says Harayama. “We have to make sure that private companies understand that it is to their advantage to include them.”

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