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Monday, March 4, 2002


Research needs cutting edge

Since Japan has already decided to reorganize national universities into public corporations in fiscal 2004, it would be useless now to discuss the pros and cons of the plan. I happen to feel the plan will do neither harm nor good.

Whether a university operates as a corporation or not has little to do with its research activities. The current stagnation in research at national universities stems from systems and practices peculiar to Japan that hinder active research by the teaching staff. Solving these problems will encourage the teaching staff to do more research work and improve research performance. Five points should be considered in reforming the systems and practices:

* National universities should promote employment of young foreign researchers as assistant professors to improve the quality of their teaching staff. U.S. universities are full of young and capable scholars and scientists, many of them from China. U.S. universities actively recruit teaching staff from abroad, but their Japanese counterparts are unwilling to do so. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that U.S. universities have better-qualified teaching staff.

* Research accomplishments at universities should be attributed to individuals, instead of departments. Grants to university research units (each comprising a professor, assistant professors and assistants) should be minimized, while grants based on competition should be increased. There should be no discrimination between national and private universities regarding such grants.

Applications for the grants should be examined by independent panels of anonymous experts in a fair manner. Panel members should be the top experts in their fields, capable of properly analyzing the outlook for research projects in question. This is basically how the U.S. National Science Foundation allocates research grants to universities.

In Japan, however, grants go to major research projects at universities on the basis of recommendations made by panels of the government's Academic Council, which groups top experts in various fields. Applicants whose papers passed initial screening are interviewed by council members, who decide whether to approve grants. The problem is that panel members often make judgments on subjects they are not familiar with.

It is not uncommon for a physics expert, for example, to consider a grant for a research project involving bioscience or economics. The present system assumes that council members can make fair judgments on any project.

* The importance of basic research should not be overlooked. Most people think that research in theoretical areas such as mathematics, physics, history, archaeology, philosophy and others is not as cost-effective as research in fields of engineering, medicine, economics and other practical sciences. It often happens, though, that research involving a theoretical science provides the foundation for the development of practical science years or decades later.

We should not forget that promoting theoretical research leads to progress in practical science down the road. For example, theories on stochastic differential equations, developed a half century ago by Kiyoshi Ito, professor emeritus at Kyoto University, have become an indispensable tool for financial engineers. It is unlikely that Ito expected his work to be applied as such.

* Criteria for pay raises and promotion should be gradually changed from seniority to performance. I stress "gradually" because seniority-based group harmony at universities would be imperiled, otherwise, by envy and jealousy. Infighting for power would affect research activities.

Movement of personnel between universities should be facilitated, and universities should compete with one another to offer better pay and working conditions to attract candidates for employment.

* The value of academic research should not be judged in terms of its immediate utility, as is often the case. The practice is absurd. More emphasis should be placed on culture, art, intellect and other research subjects that may seem to lack "usefulness."

Ever since the Cabinet of Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda announced an "income-doubling policy" in 1960 to usher in an era of high growth in Japan, declaring that academic research was the "good servant" of the economy, Japanese education authorities have promoted practical science and neglected arts and humanities. This policy may have been acceptable to an industrial society, but it no longer works for a Japan that is fast becoming a postindustrial society.

Japan is also shifting from materialism to nonmaterialism. If we fail to adapt to the changing times, our decline will be inevitable.

Takamitsu Sawa, professor of economics at Kyoto University, is also the director of the university's Economic Research Institute.

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