Site: University of Tokyo
Department of Applied Chemistry
Department of Superconductivity
Hongo 7-3-1, Bunkyou-ku
Tokyo 113-8656, Japan

Date Visited: 15 October 1998

WTEC Attendees: I. Feller, R. Harris, P. Herer


This was a fairly wide-ranging interview about the structure of Japanese universities and university-government relationships. Little information directly relevant to JKTC was provided. In fact, Professor Kitazawa noted he had very little knowledge of JKTC.

According to Prof. Kitazawa, Japanese universities are changing. Research funds for basic research in universities have increased significantly. The government, recognizing the need to stimulate the economy, has been increasing expenditures. Previously, it had relied heavily on public works construction to stimulate the economy. One of the supporting arguments for this change in policy apparently is that public works expenditures had little stimulatory impacts because most of the funds went to purchase land, and thus were really income transfers to already wealthy land holders who had high propensities to save, whereas if the money were spent on R&D, it would pass through to faculty, who were "poor" and have high propensities to consume. The government has made a major commitment to increase funding of academic R&D. Also, the increased academic R&D would stimulate purchases of high technology goods, which would help resolve a balance of trade controversy.

Ten years ago, Japanese politicians were concerned about two political issues in their relationships with the United States and other industrial countries: the trade imbalance and Japan's alleged lack of contribution to basic research. The government thus wanted to solve two problems with one stone. Increased spending on high technology/basic research programs would lead to a high percentage of the purchases going to the United States.

The government's new research policy promised 17 trillion-or approximately a $170 billion expenditure-between 1995 and 2000. So far the government has been very generous with its increased research support. Professor Kitazawa's new funds come from the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST). Prof. Kitazawa's colleague gets funds from NEDO, a subsidiary of MITI. JST, NEDO, and the Japanese Society for Promotion of Science (JSPS) are becoming increasingly important sources of university R&D funds. Professor Kitazawa also mentioned that the JSPS program is run by the Ministry of Education, Science, Sports, and Culture (Monbusho).

The funding environment for academic R&D has improved dramatically. Prof. Kitazawa's annual laboratory budget was about $200,000 a year, mostly from Monbusho, until he started to receive JST support. It is now five times larger. Also, increased flexibility has been allowed in the use of the funds. However, the university is also taking part of the award. There appears to be a 15 percent levy against the grant, 10 percent of which goes to the university, and 5 percent to central administration of the School of Engineering. These funds are then used to provide support to faculty who don't receive grants. Prof. Kitazawa described this as a form of redistribution. The research fund can be used to hire postdocs, but the students' scholarships are supported independently by Monbusho.

Prof. Kitazawa's research support is based upon peer review. He estimated that there are from 300 to 400 groups now doing research under the new system, with each group involving about 10 faculty. There has been no change, however, in faculty salaries because they are paid independently from the government. The impacts of this new research funding have been largely on purchases of equipment and increased hiring of postdocs. Until about five years ago, only JSPS had provided support for postdocs, and then only for a small number of them. Now postdocs have become increasingly important members of research laboratories-to the total of more than ten thousand by now-although Prof. Kitazawa himself still has only one postdoc.

Little relationship exists between the increased funding of academic research and support of graduate students. Graduate students are supported by fellowships from the government. (There seems to be little direct comparison to the U.S. model of using research support to provide graduate assistantships.) In response to questions on interdisciplinary research, Prof. Kitazawa noted that the Japanese university system is more pure in terms of its disciplinary focus. His lab is described as atypical in the breadth of its research disciplines and faculty.

Despite the increase in government funding for academic research, Dr. Kitazawa expressed concerns about the efficiency of the Japanese university system and the ability of government policies to promote the needed pace of change. The Japanese system of higher education was based, he noted, on upon a design imposed by the United States in the immediate post-World War II period, and although this system contributed to democratic decision-making, it also was ineffective when rapid changes were needed. Adding to the slow pace of change, in his view, were the fragmentation of responsibilities among government bureaus and the emphasis on consensus in governmental policy-making.

Prof. Kitazawa felt that insufficient national attention is given to the inefficiencies of Japan's higher education system. There is a looming shortage of human resources in science and technology in Japan, which currently is muted by the economic recession. Over time, he sees Japan as having to compete with the United States for the brain drain of the Chinese and Indian graduate students and researchers in science and technology, but Japan is less than one tenth the size of the United States.

Prof. Kitazawa observed that in Japan even basic research proposals were designated as applied research. In order to get government funding, the national research institutes and the universities disguise the basic research intent of their proposals to emphasize applied research in order for the proposals to get through. Consequently, national data on the distribution of basic vs. applied research are skewed towards applied research.

Prof. Kitazawa described the biggest problem, as well as the advantage of the Japanese university system, as lifetime employment in a government institute. Thus, lab directors never fire their research associates, who are PhDs. The University of Tokyo, for example, has a rule that if a research associate is not promoted in five years, he is advised to leave the university. However, a research associate need not leave as long as he stays in the same position. Thus it is not easy to adjust the skills of the research team to accommodate changing needs in a research project or to conduct interdisciplinary research. It's also very difficult to change research directions. For example, the University of Tokyo is seen as having two or three departments in engineering that are no longer needed.

Two approaches followed in Japanese universities to deal with the issue of rigidities in the personnel system are to merge departments and to endeavor to retool faculty in new disciplines. However, these are seen as very slow and incomplete processes. The size of departments (in terms of students and faculty) is fixed by the government. To change these numbers requires major efforts proposed by the department, approved by the university and then by Monbusho. For example, one of the largest faculties in the University of Tokyo is the Faculty of Agriculture, which reflects the orientation of the university approximately 100 years ago when Tokyo still had a surrounding agricultural region.

Faculty responses to this new competitive grant mechanism vary. At the University of Tokyo, many faculty members are involved in this new big grants mechanism. Several of the other former imperial universities also have adapted to it, although none to the degree of the University of Tokyo. Only a small percentage of faculty members at the non-imperial universities are involved. An effort is being made to provide for a broader distribution of awards to the non-imperial universities. Along these lines, Prof. Kitazawa noted, based on his experiences as a member of peer review committees, that at the margin of proposal selection, if it became a matter of selecting a proposal from a "have" or "have-not" institution, the committee would try to give it to the latter. Funding for academic research is on the PI, or essentially laboratory director, model. There are few center proposals.

Prof. Kitazawa noted that in Japan it is difficult to motivate faculty by the prospect of large grants. A bigger fund to a field does not lead to a bigger number of researchers in the field since they have secure faculty positions. In contrast, U.S. universities are described as being motivated by budgets from externally funded research proposals.

With all these changes, it is still too early to gauge how Japan's university system will respond to the new system of funding academic research.

Prof. Kitazawa is very much concerned that Japanese society is changing too slowly. He made similar observations about the pace of change in firms. They cannot fire people as changes are occurring. He noted that in the United States, it might be difficult for individuals to change but that they do change as they join different organizations that require them to change. Lack of mobility in Japan reinforces the conservatism of individuals. If change is to occur, it is likely that it will happen through the growth of the postdoctoral system. Several national research institutes are beginning to hire postdocs, who are more mobile. This may lead to change taking place, but not for several years.

The Japanese government wants to facilitate improved university-industry-national research institute cooperation. Several changes in laws have been adopted toward this end. For example, faculty members, who as employees of national universities are essentially public sector civil servants, can now spend some time as consultants with private companies. Still, many restrictions exist on this practice. For example, faculty members must get permission from the university president to be consultants. This process can take several months. In most of the cases, the length of time and the tedious processes are discouraging to those who wish to initiate these activities.

Japanese companies were described as giving more funds to U.S. private and state universities than to Japanese universities. Prof. Kitazawa explained this in terms of Japanese firms getting very little from Japanese governmental universities (in the form of technical reports or opportunities to place most of their people in university laboratories for retooling), whereas American universities (MIT was cited repeatedly) have been making big efforts to give Japanese firms something in return.

Private Japanese universities were presented as more responsive to the needs of industry and to changing opportunities, because they had fewer government restrictions on faculty activity. Keio University was cited as having a public image of strength in information technology. This reputation has attracted good students and, in turn, industrial support. The university, however, was not seen as competitive for research grants as much as major governmental universities.

Prof. Kitazawa reported energetic efforts by MITI, JST, and more recently Monbusho to stimulate the formation of small- and medium-sized firms and particularly to emphasize entrepreneurship. Still, he saw the launching of a small firm related to materials technology as very difficult in Japan. Cultural differences between Japan and the United States were emphasized in this regard. Particular emphasis was placed on lifetime employment practices. Small firms cannot find good researchers, because if the researchers are good, they are already employed by stable, larger firms. In terms of spin-offs from academic research, Prof. Kitazawa knew of only one example, that of a former national research institute researcher who had started his own firm to manufacture crystal growth systems.

Published: September 1999; WTEC Hyper-Librarian