As funding falls, China emerges as key research partner

With declining research funding in Japan and huge year on year rises in China’s research budget in recent years, China is fast emerging as a partner for Japanese scientific research collaboration, pursuing its interest in tapping Japan’s strengths in basic research.

With Japanese universities seeking to internationalise, the number of overseas partnership agreements setting up university exchange programmes has been increasing generally. According to Japan’s education ministry website, China was at the top with almost 4,500 of the total 24,792 official signed partnerships with Japanese universities in 2014, the latest figures available, with the United States second with 3,187 agreements.

A number of bilateral research collaboration projects are under way between Japanese and Chinese universities, with Japanese scientists citing the merits of such partnerships against a backdrop of dwindling Japanese funding for research.

Apart from agreements between individual universities, the government-affiliated Strategic International Collaborative Research Program under the Japan Science and Technology Agency lists 19 research agreements supported by the governments of China and Japan, mainly lasting 3-4 years. The main areas are biological sciences and environment and energy.

“There is a clear advantage to increasing our collaborative research projects with Chinese universities,” says Takayuki Takarada, professor of environmental engineering, Graduate School of Science and Technology, Gunma University, a national university involved in several joint studies on energy and environmental pollution with Chinese universities.

Takarada is involved in a three-year bilateral research collaboration developing recycling technology for disposable goods. The partnership combines Japan’s advanced expertise in basic research with the Chinese contributing to research funding.

The main benefit for his research and the university is “access to more funds from China. Also, the country is a vast testing field where garbage pollution is a serious ongoing issue,” Takarada explained.

The majority Chinese-funded project will end this September with the publication of a joint paper.

Areas of collaboration

The vast majority of Sino-Japanese joint research is in the fields of energy resources, environmental and ocean pollution and agriculture, all important sectors in Asia’s economic growth. There are other areas of collaboration, though these are growing only slowly.

Takehiko Kobayashi, a professor at the Institute for Quantitative Biosciences at the University of Tokyo, explains that collaboration with China, with its different political system, is still a new area that needs “careful exploration”.

“There is a lot to iron out in terms of agreement, sharing of patents and military policy. Getting to know each other is the first step in the right direction.”

Political relations strained

Political relations between Japan and China have been strained in recent years due to tensions over competing claims in the East China Sea, but the Chinese leadership for its part has made it clear it does not oppose people-to-people exchanges, including scientists. In 2015, even as tensions were high, Japan’s University of Tokyo and China’s Peking University signed a ‘strategic partnership deal’ to go beyond existing exchange agreements and carry out more joint programmes.

Experts note that China has become more attractive as a collaborative partner as Japanese research funding languishes and Japan falls behind in world-leading research.

According to statistics released last year by the government-affiliated National Institute of Science and Technology Policy, Japan now trails the United States and China in research spending, and has slid in its share of cited research papers. Japan produced only 3.1% of international research compared to the US at 28.5% of internationally cited papers, China at 15.4% and the UK at 6.2%.

Types of collaboration

Some collaborative research with China involves universities in both countries working independently and sharing data and analysis during workshops or discussions. But others look at problems common to both countries.

A joint cancer-prevention research programme funded by the Japanese government was launched under a memorandum signed in November 2008 between the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare and its Chinese counterpart.

Both Japan and China have high rates of tobacco cigarette use compared to the rest of the world and project documents note that both countries also share high incidences of hepatitis and liver cancer and similar ethnic and lifestyle practices.

Under the joint research project Japanese scientists will be able to access Chinese data and vice versa, strengthening outcomes.

Despite the rising trend of research collaboration, experts point out the vast majority of the ongoing projects with China tend to be short-term and focused mainly on student exchanges between the two countries.

For example, Japan’s Science and Technology Agency’s Sakura Science Plan conducts the Collaborative Research Activity programme targeting the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences, with an emphasis on two-way exchange of research expertise.

Chinese researchers are regularly invited to experience Japan’s cutting-edge technology and research culture. The aim is closer bilateral ties between scientists and building research networks and includes joint symposia and awards for doctoral candidates.

Eiichi Yamaguchi, a professor at the Graduate School of Advanced Integrated Studies in Human Survivability, Kyoto University, contends that Chinese collaboration will only increase.

“Pursuing more international collaboration, especially with China that is producing top-quality research and has large funding, is the way to go,” he said.