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Nobel Laureate Dr Hideki Shirakawa on the challenges facing researchers today

Recently the Asahi Shimbun, a major newspaper in Japan, published a fascinating interview with Dr Hideki Shirakawa, Nobel laureate in chemistry who won the prize in 2000 for his work with polyacetylene.  The interview covers a lot of ground, but what struck me in particular are his comments about the current research environment in Japan and his concerns about how the changing landscape of academia is affecting our search for new scientific knowledge.

The interview is not available in English, so I’m quoting here from a translation provided by my wife with a bit of editing from myself.

Dr Shirakawa’s concerns come to light early in the interview.  After a bit of discussion and congratulations regarding the three Japanese scientists who are being awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics this year, he answers some questions about the status of science in Japan:

Do you think Japan became a science superpower?

“I don’t want to use the word ‘science superpower’. I would rather say ‘a country that places a high value on science’. In that sense, Japan still has a long way to go. The research results won the Nobel Prize after 20 or 30 years of hard work. This did not happen because the current research environment is good nor because the national universities were incorporated. I doubt if the number of Japanese Nobel winners will be increasing at a high pace. I think we shouldn’t be optimistic.”

What do you mean?

“I’m afraid both the Japanese government and society are pushing too hard for the production of quick results in science and technology. It is true that the government research budget has increased, but those who received larger research funds are those who have very clear objectives. If you look at the basic research which sustains this work with clear objectives, you will see that the national universities which used to be a primary location for basic research no longer provide environments where researchers can do their work freely. That is my concern.”

“Before the national universities were incorporated, the main research fund was a non-competitive fund called the ‘Integration School Fund’ which was assigned based on the number of teachers at a university, and we could do basic research with this fund. This fund was not enough, so we also got a competitive fund called ‘Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research (Kakenhi)’. But nowadays, a significant portion of research funding has become competitive funding.”

The total amount of your research funding was about 200 million yen before you retired?

“Yes. That’s the total amount I used for 34 years until I retired from the University of Tsukuba. It is very small, compared with my current research project where I can use a several billion yen in 5 years. Out of that total there was only about 60 million yen which I could use freely, but I could use this to research on the theme I like and spend time on it as much as I like. That was important. The same with the these three winners [of the Nobel Prize in Physics], there was a research atmosphere where people were willing to tackle difficult themes which would not produce results immediately.”

The importance of basic research has been recognised though.

“I’m not certain either the government who allocates research funds nor the society who expects the results truly understands this importance. Lots of people show interest in a research project like the space probe ‘Hayabusa’ which captures rock samples from an asteroid. But there are many basic research projects which don’t attract such attention. They are often very inefficient. But if people start saying ‘OK, let’s not do it’, then the progress of science and technology will stop. We must accept the fact that it is very inefficient – I want society to have that deep insight.”

Dr Shirakawa points out that both he and the recent Nobel winners in Physics were able to enjoy a research environment which fostered exploration and experimentation and a focus on basic research.  Without this academic freedom, they would not have been able to explore these ‘inefficient’ insights which eventually led to revolutionary ideas.  The recent incorporation of Japanese national universities and the increasing focus on competitive funding has led to a narrowing of research goals and a focus on productivity rather than discovery.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Dr Shirakawa goes on to describe how his ability to explore new topics as a young researcher fostered his later discoveries:

When you were doing the research on plastics for which you won the Nobel Prize, did you imagine that it would be used so widely, such as in our mobile phones and LCD screens?

“I didn’t. I was interested in why electricity did not flow through the polymer, and was interested in why it might flow. When I was going to change my theme as I finished a certain amount of my project, I happened to meet Dr. MacDiarmid from the United States and he showed interest in my research and invited me to America. Thanks to this, my research developed very rapidly and led to the Prize. When I look back, my lab at the university was not my first choice — I ended up there because I lost the rock-paper-scissors game. I also liked assembling radios, so I went to the Faculty of Electronic Engineering, and I also liked growing plants so I went to the Faculty of Agriculture. I was interested in anything, and experienced many things. All those things led to my later achievement.”

So, your path to discovery was not a single straight road without a branch?

“No, but then I had freedom. I worry about the situation today’s young researchers are stuck in. At universities fixed-term positions limited to three or five years are increasing. It takes one year to launch a lab, another year to organise the experimental data and write a paper. You can hardly finish one paper. It’s not fair to be evaluated by that. It’s impossible to focus on research, and people will only choose themes on which they can write a paper in a short period of time. I’m afraid it prevents creative research.”

Dr Shirakawa credits his early explorations with his later successes, and I think it’s safe to say this is not an unusual sentiment.  Over the years we’ve seen many prominent scientists describe their circuitous paths to innovation.  Fostering intellectual curiosity and allowing for the free association and connection of seemingly disparate ideas often seems to be a key ingredient in producing new concepts and ideas..

Yet at the moment young researchers are most often placed into short-term positions with very defined goals.  We face tremendous pressure to produce outputs on one particular project immediately upon arrival, and attempts to explore related or potentially related ideas are actively discouraged.  Research is viewed now as a production line in which we think on specified topics during specified hours and are expected to produce innovations deserving of published scientific papers on a regular basis.  Personally I agree with Dr Shirakawa that much of the blame for this shift in our environment comes down to the increasing importance of competitive funding.

Scientists, like anyone else, are good adapters, and so we have coped with the pressures induced by these changes by finding ways to ‘salami-slice’ our ideas into ever-smaller bits, presenting more and more papers centred around tiny, iterative steps rather than fully-fledged chunks of work.  I recall reading recently that the United Kingdom alone produced something like 195,000 journal articles in 2012 alone.  Out of those, how many are actually worth reading?  Out of that subset, how many actually change our way of thinking about a certain idea?

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that most scientists, when pressed, would agree that the quantity of published papers is not particularly correlated to the strength of a given researcher’s body of work.  We know about salami-slicing, after all; we all have to do it to survive any of a number of performance metrics applied to us ensure that we’re doing enough busywork to justify our continued receipt of a salary.  We know about the dodgy journals, the importance of knowing the right people, the many and varied flaws in our systems of peer review.  We’ve all had that one paper that got rejected because one of those reviewers just doesn’t like our methodology, and no amount of revision will convince them otherwise.

And yet each year we seem to be under more pressure, and these problems continue to fester.  Fewer and fewer of us are able to enjoy, as Dr Shirakawa did, some time to explore widely and allow basic research to flourish.  We’re rapidly approaching an era when the majority of academics will have come up through the current environment.

I worry that, unless we think deeply about how we fund research and how we employ researchers, we will lose what we few opportunities we have left to pursue basic research.  We will lose more creative minds to industry, when we should be fostering their growth in an environment dedicated to open learning and discovery rather than profit.

I’m encouraged that we have more and more scientists openly discussing these problems now — at least the conversation is happening.  But we have to ensure that it doesn’t remain only a conversation, and we must be as inclusive as possible in these efforts, because as we can see from Dr Shirakawa’s words, this is a global problem.

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