Japan’s Contribution to World Research

Since the 1980s, Japan has emerged at the forefront of research in several fields and has made path-breaking contributions in the global arena. This is the outcome of significant investment in R&D activities and the centers of excellence in the form of more than 30 leading universities. In fact, together with the U.S. and Europe, Japan ranks among the topmost countries as a proven leader in the global effort toward research and development.

International recognition of Japan’s contribution to World Research

Expectedly, Thomson Scientific, a leading provider of information solutions, has repeatedly recognized Japan’s ongoing impact on global research through the years. In 2007, 17 leading Japanese scientists were honored with the Thomson Research Front Award. The selection was made on the basis of an analysis of communication among scientists and the fact that the Japanese scientists published research papers that were among the most highly cited papers around the world.

More recently, in December 2012, Japanese organizations dominated the Top 100 Global Innovators list announced by the IP & Science business of Thomson Reuters, the world’s leading featured provider of intelligent information for businesses and professionals. While the U.S. led globally with 47 organizations in the list, there were 25 Japanese organizations out of a total of 32 organizations from Asia. Such recognition shows that Japanese researchers and innovators are at the forefront of global research.

While Japan’s excellence in electronics is a well-established fact, researchers in Japan have a proven track record in the fields of medicine and science, as evident in the long list of Nobel laureates from Japan.

Japan has particularly excelled in medical research in the streams of nuclear medicine, cardiovascular diseases, infectious diseases, and rheumatology. A database analysis of research papers in nuclear medicine published in reputed research journals during the 1990s shows that Japanese researchers contributed more than 11% of the total papers and rank second behind the U.S.

It might be logical to assume that the excellence of medical research in Japan is a direct result of the increasing investment by both public and private sectors in the field of biomedical R&D. Not surprisingly, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine on January 2, 2014, reveals that such investment from the private sector surged from $20.9 billion in 2007 to $27.6 billion in 2012. At the macro level, Japan’s total spending on medical research increased by $9 billion and accounted for 13.8% of the world’s total research spending. To put things in perspective, the study emphasizes that the U.S. had a reduced spending on medical research over the same period.

Japan’s capacity to innovate, coupled with researchers par excellence, can surely lead the country to scale newer heights in research and to continue its contribution to the global research pool.

Globalization of Academic Research in Japan

Globalization of academic research  is a reality in the contemporary world. National boundaries are getting obliterated because of the Internet and instant electronic communication. In fact, in the last few years, there is an increasing collaboration among researchers in science, humanities, and the arts from around the world to produce results that have a global impact. In statistical terms, a report by the National Science Foundation confirms that 6,477 new international research alliances were formed in the 1990s, and this is only a fraction of the international research alliances in the 2000s.

This shows that the combined forces of globalization of academic research and and internationalization are transforming research worldwide. Research in Japan, which has had an isolated past, is also reinventing itself since the 1990s. Not surprisingly, Japan is the world’s second highest R&D spender behind the U.S. and contributes 13% of the total expenditure on R&D worldwide. This has largely been possible because of the rapid strides of industrialization in Japan.

However, the talent pool that contributes to industrialization comes from Japan’s academic institutions. Therefore, in the last few decades, there has been a conscious effort to facilitate globalization of academic research in Japan.

Globalization of Academic Research in Japan: Problems and Way Forward

Two factors that have hindered globalization of academic research in Japan are the language barrier and the lack of alignment of the academic year in Japan with the international calendar. However, both these impediments are being tackled to make Japan a truly global destination for research. Several universities have already introduced classes in English for undergraduate courses. For instance, The University of Tokyo (Todai) has launched its new all-English undergraduate programs. Further, there are more than 50 graduate schools where students can enroll for lessons conducted in English.

The mismatch in the academic year in Japan with the global academic calendar is also under scrutiny for change, although it might take some time coming because it will entail a complete overhaul of Japan’s education system. However, Todai has recently announced a four-semester plan, which is likely to start in March 2015. This will make it easier for foreign students to study at Todai from the beginning of the second term in September, and for Japanese students to utilize the summer break of June-August to study overseas. With a similar objective of attracting overseas researchers, Waseda University has also introduced four “quarter terms” as an alternative to the semester system.

Japan’s plan for international student exchange, known as the “300,000 International Students Plan,” was launched in 2008 and aims to achieve the targeted number international students by 2020. Another significant initiative toward globalization of research in Japan was the “Global 30” Project, launched by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology in 2009. The objective of this program was to establish 30 core universities for internationalization. This initiative has successfully broken down the language barrier, and a range of courses in many research fields are being offered in English at the universities.

The university is undoubtedly the cradle for pioneering research in the future. Therefore, it is important to open up Japan’s research institutions to international research talent, and to simultaneously send Japanese researchers for exposure in other countries.  Already, researchers from universities and research institutes in Japan are travelling to China, Vietnam, Russia, Hungary, Germany, France and many other countries, with reciprocal visits from those countries.

The Future of Globalization of Academic Research in Japan

These are the first steps in Japan toward an international mix of researchers, which have gathered momentum after the turn of the millennium and will yield tangible results in the next few decades. Assimilation of international researchers in higher education, backed by favorable government policies and funding for research projects, will go a long way toward globalization of research in Japan, and will hopefully take research in Japan even higher on the global stage.