Japan: Land of the 'Science Deficit'

Though a leader in technology innovation, Japan lags behind the West in basic research, despite pressures for change

IN the watery depths of Tokyo Bay rests a most unusual relic of Japan's last high point as a nation of science: a cyclotron.This particle accelerator, once used by physicists to probe nature's innermost forces, was dumped in the sea after World War II by the United States military on the suspicion that it might someday be used by the Japanese to learn how to make a nuclear bomb - despite Japan having been the only nation ever to be victim of one. Many of Japan's best scientific labs were broken up during the American occupation, and now, in a twist of history some 45 years later, the United States is strongly urging Japan to boost its basic research - and, ironically, to also buy into a new cyclotron. The US wants Japan to help pay for the Superconducting Supercollider that, if finished by the turn of the century as expected, would be the world's largest scientific instrument. Priced at $8.49 billion, the oval-shaped apparatus would use the latest discoveries in super-conducting magnets to propel bits of atoms around a 54-mile underground tunnel in northeast Texas. "This project seeks to discover the very basic mysteries of science and life itself," says Deputy US Secretary of Energy W. Henson Moore. A year-long US lobbying effort in Japan will culminate with a visit to Tokyo by President Bush in late November, when he is expected to press Japanese leaders to put up over $1 billion for the project. Participation by Japan "would represent a very highly visible Japanese demonstration that it accepts the mantle of leadership" in basic science, says Allan Bromley, Bush's science and technology adviser, who was in Tokyo recently to lay the groundwork for the president's visit. A reluctance by Japan to back the supercollider has become the latest symbol of a new friction in US-Japanese relations: a disparity in the flows of science and technology between the two nations. Some analysts say such friction may surpass the bilateral trade tension that rose in the 1980s. While Japan excels in the incremental innovation and manufacturing of technology, it is accused of "freeloading" off the ideas of Western science without advancing the frontiers of basic knowledge. Both Bush and former President Reagan have helped Japan to deflect this criticism that it reaps rather than sows the fruits of science by coaxing it to join international projects, ranging from the US-led space station to fusion research. "Politicians in Japan say that they can't win votes by supporting basic research," says Hiroshi Inose, director-general of the National Center for Science Information. "We lack leadership in science." But Suzanne D. Berger, head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) political science department says: "The Japanese have to come up with something on research. They can't continue to borrow from abroad." She adds that American leaders are more and more worried about the slippage of US technological superiority, with American universities under pressure to restrict foreign access so as to prevent an outflow of science and technology. Japanese corporations, for instance, have funded 26 "chairs" for professors at MIT, more than at the University of Tokyo. And a few dozen Japanese companies pay for special access to MIT researchers. "The idea is that foreign companies are coming into MIT and cream-skimming off the best ideas," Dr. Berger says. "There is a very, very strong movement to curtail this" in the name of national security, despite the threat to academic freedom. Japan sends over 25,000 researchers to the US each year, while only 5,000 Americans go to Japanese universities or labs, points out Erich Bloch, former director of the National Science Foundation and now a distinguished fellow at the Council on Competitiveness. The US also exports an estimated $1.5 billion in technology to Japan, he says, three times as much as Japan sends in the reverse direction. "These differences are the cause of real friction," Dr. Bloch says. "The friction will be with the US for some time to come." Some US leaders propose raising barriers to Japanese researchers in American labs unless Japan offers more "symmetrical access" to its science and technology. "We should use that threat to gain maximum concessions to their labs," Bloch says. But unlike in the US, where basic research is mainly in universities which are relatively open, Japan's best science is in its corporate labs. "Foreign access to basic science research in Japan will never happen," says Orlando Camargo, an American researcher at the Japanese government's National Institute of Science and Technology Policy (NISTP), "because most of it is corporate." He suggests that the US seek "symmetrical permeability," or more indirect access. University labs in Japan are poor cousins to the better-equipped ones in the rich high-tech companies. Out of some 550 universities and colleges in Japan, only about 15 are really research-oriented, says Dr. Inose. "Some individual Japanese professors have had some achievements comparable to American or European professors. But they are the exceptions," he adds. Despite more than 10 years of official talk that Japan must boost its creativity and funding in science, the government's share of research funding actually shrank 20.8 percent in 1984 to 17.1 percent in 1989. Moreover, Japan only spends half as much as the US, France, and Germany on research as a proportion of GNP, according to the latest report from Japan's Science and Technology Agency. The end result of the government's aim to turn Japan into a Nobel-Prize-winning nation with breakthrough discoveries is "very, very poor," says Fujio Niwa, a NISTP senior fellow and a Tsukuba University professor. "The US government has paid great attention to academic infrastructure for science. Not so in Japan," he says. "Research is still a black box to us. We don't know where original ideas come from." So far, the US has not had to beat Japan over the head much on its weak science efforts, says one American official, "because the Japanese do so well beating themselves." Big Japanese corporations that now lead the world in many technologies are eagerly trying to move toward basic research, both at home and by setting up labs abroad. Corporate leaders, having reached world stature in technology, worry that their access to Western science might be cut off and also know that their own progress lies in opening new technologies. "There is not much left in Western technology for us to copy," says Genya Chiba, a leading Japanese science policymaker. "So we decided to join together to try to create something. But we are still way behind in basic research." Lack of science might be the Achilles' heel of Japan's economic future, but some scientists say increased Japanese research is needed in case of a possible slack period in Western science. "As the West loses its market position, it will put less into science," Bloch says. "We will become stagnant. Japan has to make up for it." In 1987, as a result of criticism about its "science deficit," Japan set up the Human Frontiers Science Program, an international lab for life sciences in France. As part of the dealmaking now going on over funding the super collider, the US has offered money for Human Frontiers, overcoming past wariness of the project. US science adviser Bromley has also suggested to Japan that it create a special science fund to both increase support for university research and support international science projects such as the super collider. As Bush's visit to Tokyo draws nears, many groups in Japan are urgently pushing the government to double its research budget.

The first of three parts.

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