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Promoting challenges overseas for young researchers ― MEXT enhances Global Brain Circulation through system improvements

2022.06.15

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) is creating a new structure for young researchers that will enable them to travel for their studies and is also beginning to make improvements to the joint degree system (in which multiple universities collaborate to award a degree certificate), aiming to form the core of a global brain circulation network. In addition to basic initiatives such as the Research Fellowship for Young Scientists, MEXT has also started a new research category for Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research (KAKENHI): International Leading Research. Furthermore, MEXT's integrated promotion of new measures will enhance training for top-level human resources and international mobility.

Promoting exchanges between top-level researchers and joint research within an international network will strengthen Japan's research capabilities, creating new values and solving social problems, and thus is extremely important. However, looking at the international flows of scientific authors (OECD investigation), America, Europe and China stand at the center of the global research network, while Japanese collaboration is relatively poor. Although the number of researchers on short-term visits (less than a month) is tending to increase, the number of researchers being accepted is levelling off, and both the number of researchers on medium- to long-term visits (one month or more) and their acceptance are also tending to stay the same. Furthermore, over the 10 years from 2010 to 2019, the total number of people from around the world who received research PhDs in America increased by 16% - but the number of recipients from Japan almost halved, going from 236 people to 129 people.

It follows that the shortcut to solving this issue is to greatly increase the number of Overseas Research Fellowships (200 people a year), but this is difficult due to financial constraints, among other reasons. Thus, the decision has been made to provide support so that young researchers from Japan can participate in employment programs for young researchers in America and other countries.

Conventionally, a fellowship involves sending a researcher to an overseas research institution while that researcher is still enrolled in a Japanese institution. However, the newly launched New Mode of Mobility for Young Researchers Involved in Global Brain Circulation project will encourage people to transfer their enrolment to overseas universities and research institutions and engage in research/obtain their degree while being paid as a post-doc, a specially appointed assistant professor or an RA/TA employed by a Principal Investigator.

In FY2022, 50 million yen of JST's Strategic International Collaborative Research Program (SICORP) budget has been set aside to be used for a trial. MEXT will designate target countries and fields and JST will send out a call for applicants. The money will be used to aid Japanese research groups (PI) aiming to expand their overseas networks, providing support for travel expenses and accommodation expenses for long-term trips of one year or more to gain positions in foreign institutions as young researchers, specially appointed assistant student professors, post-docs, RAs, etc., or for medium-term trips (one to three months) with the aim of taking a long-term trip.

As this is a trial initiative, approximately 20 groups will be selected and given around 2 million yen each. The initiative will gather examples of young researchers/students transferring overseas, as well as know-how that overcomes the divisions between fields, and will find examples and share good practice to establish role models.

The International Cooperative Curricula Scheme-known as joint degrees-involves the creation of curricula in collaboration with foreign universities and both universities together awarding a single degree. This was set up in 2014, and right now 26 programs are being run in 12 universities. Joint degrees were the first system to create courses using the educational resources of foreign universities, and when they were established the design of the system was cautious: they were subject to approval for their institution and had an upper admission limit of a maximum 20% of the undergraduate and graduate courses of the parent institution. Seven years have passed since this system was established, and thanks to the accumulation of know-how and increased progress in international exchange and collaboration, it is being revised to make it easier for each university to run.

The requirements for approval will be relaxed. Until now, these courses were all subject to approval, but if the overall curriculum fulfils the requirements, such as not altering the type or field of the degree, it can be set up through a notification. However, from the perspective of quality assurance, it is required that the general state of the educational and research activities of the collaborating foreign university or institution is subject to an evaluation for accredited institutions. Moreover, the restriction of a maximum 20% of undergraduate courses, etc., has been abolished. Meanwhile, a plan must be made and measures put in place so students on courses based on international cooperation can continue their education if it becomes difficult for a joint degree program with a foreign university or institution to continue due to a disaster or other reason. On top of this, it is now possible for multiple universities and other institutions in Japan to participate. Participating universities will reduce the minimum number of necessary class credits. The relevant notices and part of the Standards for the Establishment of Universities will be revised and go into effect on August 1 this year.

However, one question remains. Is it possible to resolve concerns about what will happen after returning to Japan?

Lots of young researchers want to take on challenges overseas but are worried what will happen when they return to Japan and so feel unable to challenge themselves. For example, although there are universities that accept international applications for their tenure track system, the number of people and posts are limited. These new initiatives will first increase the number of individuals that take on the challenge, but in the long term, many universities should fully introduce a system that allows people to obtain posts through fair competition. To accomplish this, it will likely be necessary for both university management and all other university members to share a vision of the future of their university and strive for reform.

This article has been translated by JST with permission from The Science News Ltd.(https://sci-news.co.jp/). Unauthorized reproduction of the article and photographs is prohibited.

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