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Five years of the 5th Basic Plan: The state of basic research has "significantly deteriorated"
NISTEP TEITEN surveys ask experts
■Environments for young people have improved,
■Basic funding has decreased year on year,
■Some people value industry-academia collaboration,
■The outcomes of university reforms fall short


In the five years of the 5th Science and Technology Basic Plan, which was implemented from April 2016 to March 2021, the circumstances surrounding basic research have deteriorated a great deal. The National Institute of Science and Technology Policy (NISTEP) carried out regular TEITEN surveys during the period of the 5th Basic Plan, asking the same experts about their feelings each year, and now the information from 2020 (the final academic year) has been released. While improvements in the development of environments in universities and public research institutions are visible, the state of basic research has become more severe, and it has become clear that the difficult conditions concerning basic funding, research periods, and research support personnel are continuing.

The TEITEN surveys asked the same questions each year to a group of around 2000 people from universities and public research institutions, including the heads of these institutions, the people responsible for practical management, instructors and researchers who work on site, and the people responsible for research in large-scale research and development projects, as well as to a group of approximately 700 people who oversee innovation, made up of officials responsible for research and development in the world of industry, etc., PDs of institutions that distribute funds, and people responsible for research in large-scale research and development projects. The questions fell into six broad categories, including research personnel, research funding, basic research, and innovation policies. Sometimes additional surveys that went into more depth were carried out. In the free description sections, the surveys gathered opinions on over 15,000 issues.

Looking at how the situation regarding research personnel in universities and public research institutions has changed during the 5th Plan, we can see movements for the improvement of "the development of environments that will offer young researchers opportunities for independence and activity," and "initiatives in organizations that help young researchers with practical accomplishments obtain posts that are not fixed term." The provision of funds for start-ups, the introduction of tenure track systems, and the start of annual salary schemes for senior researchers were the reasons for the higher rating. At the same time, there was increased worry regarding "Do personnel with desirable talents aim to take doctoral courses?" The reason for this is that excellent students look for work in companies after gaining a master’s degree. In the more detailed surveys, initiatives such as "improving pay and economic support," "expanding posts in academia," "enhancing the appeal of research positions," "expanding career paths outside of academia," and "improving structures for job-seeking and entering further education" were highly ranked as policies to encourage people to enter doctoral courses.

Meanwhile, in the personnel category, "improvement of environments toward helping female researchers to become more active" showed characteristic results. Overall, the outcome was one of improvement, but while the introduction of systems by management levels such as university presidents and directors of institutions led to a higher rating, from the perspective of female researchers alone, who are the interested party, the rating went down due to issues on the operations side. It was pointed out that systems for specially-appointed assistant professor still do not consider life events, and that support for life events for male researchers is also required.

The three categories of basic funding, research periods, and research support personnel were ranked in the worst 10, and this severe situation continued throughout the period of the Basic Plan. The following reasons have been given for this: basic funding have decreased year on year, researchers are unable to carry out their research with the funding from institutions, it is understood that there are many general affairs that must be cut back due to the COVID-19 crisis, and there aren’t many URAs. Moreover, in "facility-based and equipment-based environments for creative and cutting-edge research, development, and personnel training," the situation has worsened significantly. The opinions given included that facilities and equipment are aging and there are difficulties in updating them, and core experimental facilities are on the verge of ceasing due to lack of budget. On top of this, the reduction/cessation of paid subscriptions that has accompanied sudden jumps in journal prices and a lack of budget has had an effect on informational infrastructure such as electronic journals, and their rating has dropped significantly. From the more detailed surveys, we have also learned that there are so many submissions to open access journals that these have a great deal of external funding, and that many of their costs are covered by this external funding.

Three questions related to basic research, "Is diversity being ensured in basic research?" "Is basic research producing results on an international level?" and "Will research outcomes lead to innovation?" were the three areas ranked lowest during the 5th Plan. To accomplish new academic research, it is important for researchers to establish new themes and to implement exploratory research that tests new ideas, but 16% of all respondents have replied that they were not able to carry out exploratory research in the past two or three years, despite wanting to. The implementation rate is low in groups with little external research funding or personal research funding, and 65% of researchers who did not obtain external funding did not carry out their exploratory research.

Industry-academia collaboration has barely changed overall, but went up in the opinions of respondents from management ranks such as university presidents and directors of institutions and respondents from large companies. This is the result of evaluations of industry-academia collaboration initiatives between organizations, such as open innovation organizations, cooperative research institutions, and collaborative courses.

Although various initiatives for university reform and functional enhancement went ahead during the 5th Plan, we learned that on-site researchers cannot feel any of the results of these improvements at the moment. Reviews of the organization within universities, and the leadership of university presidents and executives changed positively for university presidents and the heads of institutions, etc., and negatively for researchers on site.

Support that will reach exhausted research locations

On-site researchers in this survey are researchers that have been endorsed by heads of department, and groups with high evaluations and large amounts of external funding. Regardless of this, it is thought that the recognition of severe conditions indicates that actual research locations are considerably exhausted. The government emphasizes that it reached its five-year target for governmental research and development investment (26 trillion yen), which it did not do during the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Basic Plans, but there are many outcomes that, like a mirage, did not materialize due to revisions of its counting methods. Moreover, a large amount of research and development expenditure, which did in fact increase, was thrown at large-scale goal-orientated developmental research, and had almost no connection with research locations. For the Sixth Science, Technology and Innovation Basic Plan, which began in April, to succeed, this monitoring should continue, and budgets and support that reach research locations should be enhanced.

This article has been translated by JST with permission from The Science News Ltd.( Unauthorized reproduction of the article and photographs is prohibited.

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