Japan's strategy for growth highlights innovation

Collaboration with companies will become more important in the government’s science and technology strategies.

15 August 2017

Ichiko Fuyuno

Sergey Soldatov / Alamy Stock Photo

The Japanese government aims to increase spending on science and technology by 900 billion yen over the next three years, with a significant chunk going to a new initiative to promote collaboration between industry and academia.

The boost formed part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s 2017 strategy for growth, which was approved by the Cabinet in June. While the final budget for 2018 won’t be decided by the Ministry of Finance until December, some researchers are concerned that another high-profile programme could siphon much-needed funds away from basic research.

Japan’s investment in research and development has stalled since 2001, but the government’s growth strategy underlined the economic importance of innovation. By 2020, the government aims to raise the country’s GDP to 600 trillion yen (US$5.4 trillion), up from 537 trillion in 2016, and increase its investment in R&D to 4.4 trillion yen (US$36.1 billion), up from 3.5 trillion in 2017.

Key to the strategy is the Public/Private R&D Investment Strategic Expansion Program (PRISM), which will support significant industry–academic partnerships in established research areas, where policy-makers expect high public demand, including artificial intelligence, robotics and quantum optics. PRISM is part of the government’s recent push toward establishing Society 5.0, a super-smart society that seamlessly integrates cyberspace with the real world.

Japan’s powerful business organization Keidanren hopes the government will allocate 200 billion yen (US$1.8 billion) next year for PRISM. The programme will be managed by the Council for Science, Technology and Innovation (CSTI), the government’s top advisory body on science and technology policies.

Nagayasu Toyoda, president of Suzuka University of Medical Science, says PRISM will make an important contribution, but believes investment in such a large new project could curtail funding availability for, among other areas, basic research in regional universities.

Large corporations are likely to be the primary participants in PRISM, he adds, despite medium- and small-sized companies accounting for 99.7% of Japan’s enterprises. “Compared to other major countries, smaller companies in Japan invest much less in R&D,” says Toyoda. “If the government is really resolved to generate innovation, it should create better incentives for these companies to invest in R&D and collaborate with local universities.” In any case, says Toyoda, the Ministry of Finance might not approve the 900-billion-yen boost in R&D, as it typically prioritizes social welfare spending.

Meanwhile, Kiyoshi Kurokawa, a medical doctor who has held several important public posts, such as science advisor to the prime minister, says the government is always keen to launch new projects but it fails to thoroughly investigate their outcomes. “That is the biggest problem,” he says. “In the past, we have had many large-scale projects such as FIRST, but Japan has not become more innovative.” The Funding Program for World-Leading Innovative R&D on Science and Technology, known as FIRST, announced in 2009, distributed large grants to 30 scientists, amounting to 100 billion yen.

In 2017, Japan’s rank slipped to 8, from 6 in 2016, in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, which measures innovation.

Kurokawa says the government should instead provide generous funding to support college and graduate students in building their careers outside Japan. “Being abroad as an independent individual is very important and they will become the greatest asset of future Japan.”

Norimasa Takeda, counsellor of CSTI, says PRISM will be different because it will only provide additional funding to existing ministerial projects, as opposed to creating new projects to manage. “We hope to motivate ministries to come up with attractive ideas, and induce private companies to increase investment in the target areas,” he says. “We will put the utmost effort into making it work and activating the economy.”

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