133 Why do science in Japan?

A few times I have been asked by colleagues why I decided to move to Japan and do science there rather than in Europe or North America. There are a number of reasons for this. First, and foremost, ever since I first visited Japan in 2008 I have always enjoyed being here: it is clean, quiet and safe, with a standard of living en par with, or even succeeding, that of Europe and North America. People are polite and appear to also care about the greater good rather than just themselves. Second, I have colleagues here with whom I work well. Third, Japan is one of the world's leaders in the area of research I am active in, so there are extensive opportunities for collaboration. Of course these are personal reasons and I could enjoy the same standard of living and research environment in Europe or North America.

However, there is another reason why I think being a scientist in Japan has an advantage over Europe or North America: funding. For a scientist to be successful in the long run, it is necessary that they both have original ideas and are able to obtain external funding, usually through national government funding agencies. In Japan, JSPS's Kakenhi programme accounts for 60% of all scientific funding. The European Research Council (ERC), China's Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) and the USA's Natural Science Foundation (NSF) fill similar roles, together with many smaller national agencies. Long-term success depends not only on publishing fantastic results but also on perpetually winning grant proposals to fund a research lab, travel costs, equipment cost, student and/or post-doc salaries, conference attendance, and much more. This is where Japan sets itself apart from Europe and North America.

Let's look at the numbers. It is generally known that the typical fraction of proposals funded is decreasing with time. I will not go into details why this is so but suffice that the funding situation is deteriorating in most places. In the EU the chance of success under the ERC's FP7 programme, which ran from 2007 until 2013, was 20%. Its follow-up, Horizons 2020, has a typical probability of success of a mere 14% and decreasing. In the USA, the average across a range of funding agencies (the NSF, NASA, Department of Energy, Defense, Homeland, and so forth) is a low 13%, and also decreasing, but it used to be over 20% a decade ago. Meanwhile, chances at China's NSFC are 20%, JSPS's Kakenhi is 25% (steady since 1996) and Canada's NSERC is 35% or higher. NSFC President Yang Wei said that 20% `is a good ratio because we don't want the approval rate to be too high, which would mean low selectivity. Or too low, which would seem like gambling.' Indeed, everything else being equal, the number of tries to have a 50% or higher chance of getting funded is 2 for a success rate of 25% (which happened in my case), 3 for 20% and more than 4 when the probability drops below 15%; this is longer than the average post-doc contract and potentially shuts out many young scientists from a long-term career in science. In the United States a 50% acceptance probability after 3 tries is considered the `absolute minimum' benchmark identified as the point at which new researchers spend more time proposing than publishing papers; it corresponds to a probability of success of 20%. While a healthy level of competition identifies the best science and boosts productivity, unhealthy success rates discourage innovation and cause inefficiencies.

Unfortunately the higher chance of success in Japan comes at a price: the usual amount of money awarded for a Kakenhi proposal is between 60% and 75% of the requested amount. If all proposals were funded at full level the probability of success would also drop to near 15%, but because Japan does not adhere to a winner takes-all mentality it opts to fund more proposals at a lower level. It is obvious that it is better to be funded at half level than not having any funding at all. This high success rate makes, in my opinion, Japan a winner over Europe and North America when it comes to doing science because it does a better job of giving young scientists a fighting chance. Japan's Wakate programmes are a great help in that area because it prevents young scientists from having to compete with top professors for the same resources. The ERC's Consolidator grants also target younger scientists but at a very different level.

According to a survey by Von Hippel & Von Hippel, a PI in the USA spends about 116 hours writing a proposal, which is nearly 3 working weeks. From my own experience writing a proposal to the ERC, it is not uncommon to spend between a similar amount of time, though I spent well over 6 weeks. Proposals to the ERC, NASA and the NSF are long (16 pages and longer). With a success probability of 13% the PI spends 18 weeks on proposal writing: more than 4 months. The true amount spent is lower because proposals are recycled (identified as a problem that lowers success rate) and the same proposal gets submitted to different programmes. Regardless, it is immediately clear that any successful scientist in the USA, where having multiple proposals funded simultaneously is a necessity, spends a disproportionate amount of time seeking access to funding. In the EU this is less of a problem because having multiple grants is generally unnecessary. In Japan on the other hand, the proposals are short (10 pages, of which 6 is background stuff that only needs to be filled out once) and researchers can only have a single proposal funded through Kakenhi as the PI; having multiple proposals as a PI is both illegal and unnecessary and is designed so that the same people cannot hoard a disproportionate amount of funds.

With the shorter proposals, the higher chance of success, and thus more time to do actual science, excellent facilities, safe, clean, quiet environment and high standard of living, what's not to like about doing science in Japan?