Japan increasing R&I budget more than 10 percent, and shooting at the moon

In Japan’s new fiscal year, beginning from April 1, significant attempts in boosting research and innovation (R&I) are made, in line with last year’s Integrated Innovation Strategy. The budget for R&I is increased by 10.4 percent and important measures include a Moonshot initiative and fostering of young researchers for innovation, with the overall aim to boost Japan’s capacity for cutting edge innovation.

The increase of funding with 10.4 percent is in line with Japan’s strategy to significantly increase public investments in research, development and innovation. In this ambition, also ministries that traditionally have been less involved in R&I are urged to increase focus, like for instance agriculture, not least for implementing transformative technologies as artificial intelligence and IoT. In FY 2019, however, Cabinet Office implements a new way of calculating the budget for R&I, which is less transparent and includes implementation-related activities for new technologies that traditionally have not been part of the public R&D budget. This fact has caused some unclarity around the actual composition.

A major initiative from the Cabinet Office is the Moonshot Programme, which is a high risk and high impact programme for stimulating disruptive innovation. The total budget is JPY 100 billion (SEK 8.3 billion), with 80 percent for the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) and 20 percent for the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI). Similar to EU’s European Innovation Council and DARPA’s initiatives in the US, the aim of the Moonshot Programme is the transformation of industry and society by disruptive innovations from novel ideas, for instance from emerging research and technologies.

At the moment, there is an open call from Cabinet Office for proposals of societal challenges to be addressed in the Moonshot Programme (in Japanese here). The call is open for input from, for instance, agencies such as Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST) under MEXT and New Energy Industry Technology Development Organisation (NEDO) under METI, as well as from other organisations and from the public. The programme will be implemented through competitive calls and a stage-gate system, and will also encourage international collaboration.

Japanese research and business approaches have been considered more conservative than in other parts of the world, and claimed to be risk avert.  With the Moonshot Programme, the Government presents ambitions and initiatives to meet international competition by stimulating innovation through open and global processes. Going into implementation of these initiatives, it will be interesting to follow the processes and outcomes. Hopefully Swedish actors will join forces with Japanese in the Moonshot endeavour.

Japan also aims to foster younger researchers for cutting-edge innovation. Although the importance of innovation and speed is recognised, measures for innovation have been a big challenge in Japan. Japanese Nobel laureates have been raising awareness of fear for the future of science in Japan, as policies are becoming more short-term and goal-oriented, and not encouraging curiosity-driven research and new ideas enough. MEXT is now focusing on expanding research programs for young researchers, to strengthen the future capacity in science, technology and innovation.

The traditional culture in Japan is considered to be an obstacle in creating innovation, with for instance a hierarchical system, promotion of seniority, homogeneous society, and male-centred society. The Japanese Government shows clear awareness and attempts to promote innovation friendly-culture and systems similar to those in the US and EU, with the aim to introduce such in Japan. This will be done by increasing the number of innovation programs and promoting an eco-system to commercialise research and creating start-ups. Academia in Japan has raised awareness of the importance of diversity for creating innovative ideas, and have tried to push younger researchers to go abroad to earn new experiences. However, the number of Japanese studying and doing their research abroad has steadily decreased during the last decade, and is now only 65 percent of its peak in 2004, with 86 000. The students and PhD students today do not see sufficient benefits of the experience from studying, researching and working overseas. There is a reluctance to go abroad due to, for instance, fear of getting derailed from career paths or becoming isolated when returning to Japan. The Government aims to change this mind-set to be able to increase the competitiveness of Japanese research and innovation in the global context.

In FY 2019, one of the major initiatives in the science and technology budget is the enhancing and establishing programs for younger researchers.  The budget for fostering excellent researchers is JPY 237.2 billion (SEK 19.7 billion), increased by JPY 8.6 billion (SEK 710 million).  A plan to accelerate research is created to assign young excellent researchers as leaders for frontier new emerging, or merging fields, budgeted for JPY 32.8 billion (SEK 2.7 billion). The JST’s new ACT-X program was established for researchers with unique and forward-looking ideas to continue their research without fear of failure.  The recipients of the fund will be 210 researchers, increased by 60 researchers compared to the previous year. 

In addition to the current programs for overseas special researchers program with JPY 2.3 billion (SEK 190 million), a new program called International competitive enhancement researcher has started.  For fostering and securing science and innovation experts, the Japanese Government established programs to expand the opportunities to challenge and earn experiences at research institutes overseas, and proving good research environment when they return to Japan.  The new programs for providing opportunities will be important for young researchers to increase impact in the research and innovation environment, and contribute to boost future research and innovation in Japan. Link to MEXT, in Japanese.

Prime Minister Abe celebrating sakura and the start of the new financial year. Photo: Michael Jacob.