Young Japanese scholars head to China for stable, independent jobsBy KEIKO YOSHIOKA/ Senior Staff Writer
October 14, 2022 at 10:30 JST
Motoyuki Hattori was promising young scholar in Japan, held a position at the nation’s most elite university, and had career prospects that were far more solid than those of his peers.
But Hattori left Japan seven years ago for a professorship at a university in China, and he has never looked back.
Hattori, now 40, who specializes in structure and function of membrane transporters, wanted to quickly start his own laboratory. And that was possible at Fudan University in Shanghai.
“In Japan’s academic culture, it usually takes 10 years or so until post-doctorate researchers can set up their own labs after completing the so-called ‘apprenticeship’ period under professors,” he said in a recent online interview. “I contemplated about what I should do in my 30s, when I was physically and mentally capable of carrying out demanding work. My conclusion was to go overseas.”
He is not alone.
A number of Japanese scholars are opting to do research in China mainly because of something that most young workers want: job stability.
Japan continues to use a funding system that critics say is pushing away young researchers.
To cover costs for personnel and research activities, Japanese national universities and research institutes had long relied on government grants and “competitive research funds,” which are supplied only for planned projects submitted by scientists and approved in a government review.
Since 2004, the government has been scaling back university grants and increasing competitive funds.
But the competitive funds are awarded to projects that last only three to 10 years or so, leading to insecure employment situations.
Supporters of the shift say the fixed-term project contracts fuel mobility and competition, thus revitalizing scientific research.
With no guarantee for funding, however, aspiring researchers, particularly those in basic research, may be reluctant to tackle a challenging project while planning their personal lives from a long-term perspective, critics say.
Hattori said the availability of more secure positions at Chinese universities is the biggest reason Japanese scholars relocate to China.
“As far as I know, dozens of young and mid-career Japanese scientists are doing research in this country,” he said. “They left Japan because the bulk of appointments available were fixed-term contracts.”
He stressed, “I believe most of them would have stayed in Japan if they had had a better job security.”
A majority of them, Hattori said, are in basic research, such as theoretical physics, astronomy and life sciences.
A study by the education ministry’s National Institute of Science and Technology Policy (NISTEP) found that 67.6 percent of postdoctoral researchers at Japanese universities and publicly supported research institutes were working under contracts lasting less than three years in fiscal 2018.
When he was 32, Hattori was an assistant professor of life sciences under a fixed-term contract at the University of Tokyo. The government-affiliated Japan Science and Technology Agency selected him as a recipient of research grants for promising young scholars.
Still, he chose Fudan University from among the offers provided by several overseas universities.
Hattori noted that when he studied at Oregon Health Science University in the United States after obtaining a Ph.D. in science in Japan, many of his American colleagues his age had already set up their own labs.
Fudan University ranks eighth in Asia, one notch above Kyoto University, according to the latest QS World University Rankings by Britain’s Quacquarelli Symonds Ltd.
Shanghai was not a totally unfamiliar world for Hattori. His wife hails from the metropolis.
But it was China’s fast changing academic landscape that made it easier for Hattori to take the leap abroad.
“Chinese scholars who have completed their training in the United States are returning to China, taking senior positions at universities, and introducing U.S.-style management of operations,” he said. “Those returnees respect young researchers’ self-initiatives and let them set up their labs, earlier than in Japan.”
Hattori said his Chinese colleagues who landed professorships at Fudan University around the same time as he did were in his generation.
His annual pay is about 8 million yen ($55,000), comparable with a scientist of a similar age on a tenure track in Japan.
The big difference, however, is that Hattori is receiving the equivalent of more than 100 million yen over a six-year period for his startup lab.
As China’s economy grew, it began accepting more students at universities. The number of college students has grown tenfold over the past 20 years.
The number of faculty members has also expanded.
For example, the School of Life Sciences at Fudan University where Hattori works has more than doubled its number of professors over a decade.
Hayato Shimabukuro, 34, gained a Ph.D. in astronomy from Nagoya University, conducted research at the Paris Observatory, and then moved to China’s elite Tsinghua University in Beijing in 2018.
In late 2019, he landed his current post of associate research professor of astronomy at Yunnan University’s Southwestern Institute for Astronomy Research, also in China.
“The No. 1 reason I came to China was for a secure position,” Shimabukuro said.
Shimabukuro earns about 6 million yen in annual salary plus about 30 million yen in research funds over a three-year period.
The Japanese science community was both stunned and alarmed when Akira Fujishima, an 80-year-old chemist who is widely regarded as a potential Japanese Nobel laureate for his photocatalysis studies, relocated to China with his research team last year.
Fujishima, a former president of the Tokyo University of Science, accepted a full-time position at the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology.
Observers said Fujishima and his team were looking for an education facility where they could continue their studies—and that school was located in China.
“There was a time when U.S. institutions used to recruit retired distinguished scientists from Europe to enhance their prestige and to attract young promising professionals keen to collaborate with them,” Hattori said.
China also used that strategy in the past, but not so much anymore, he added.
“Chinese scientists in their 30s and 40s who studied in the United States have begun returning home to do research and produce scientific articles to the world,” he said. “With a growing pool of young talent, China does not have to rely on costly programs to lure big names.”
China’s research clout is impressive.
The NISTEP’s “Japanese Science and Technology Indicators 2022” report showed that between 2018 and 2020, China ranked No. 1 globally in terms of the number of papers it published in science and engineering journals around the world.
China also placed at the top both in its share of papers in the top 10 percent and the top 1 percent by number of citations in such publications over the same period.
Japan ranked fifth, 12th, 10th in each of the three categories, respectively, extending a sliding trend.
China spends three times more than Japan on research and development.
Although the confrontation between China and the United States has intensified in recent years, Chinese represent the largest group of foreign students earning doctorates at U.S. schools.
The Chinese figure is 50 times the number of Japanese who earn their Ph.D.s in the United States.
Some in Japan are quick to suspect that Japanese researchers who move to China are possible spies who might leak sensitive information and technology, particularly about military matters.
Hattori, however, warned that bashing Japanese scientists in China could mask the fundamental problems Japan needs to address: its international slide in scientific research and its dismal employment situation for scholars.
Hattori suggested that Japan put together an attractive recruitment plan to lure back Japanese scholars, reverse the “brain drain” and halt its declining international research status.
China’s Thousand Talents recruitment program, which started in 2008, was criticized in Japan as a way to “steal” foreign researchers.
Although Hattori receives grants from the program, he said its purpose was to lure Chinese researchers overseas back home with hefty grants.
He said Japan could learn a lesson from the program.
He recommended offering full-time positions at universities across Japan, not just at a handful of prestigious schools in large cities.
Hattori noted that the Chinese government has increased support to regional universities to raise academic standards across the country.
Some of Hattori’s colleagues at Fudan University have moved from Shanghai to work at regional schools in line with this effort.
“The Japanese government continued with a policy to select only a limited number of schools that receive lavish research funding, but that plan has been detrimental to the country’s research,” he said.
“It is essential for progress in science to have large numbers of scholars and to have them in broader areas,” he said. “It is the same as a mountain. The higher a mountain is, the larger its foundation is.”