Cash-strapped researchers are turning to private funders

Japanese researchers are turning to private funding sources for survival after decades of dwindling public funding for research, which has been highlighted by the country’s lagging research response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The corona[virus] epidemic has highlighted the challenges facing researchers, who struggle to find stable funding in Japan. Collaboration with the private sector is the way ahead,” explained Professor Eiichi Yamaguchi, head of Yamaguchi Laboratory at Kyoto University.

Yamaguchi, an expert on electronics and science-based industries, has launched research-based high-tech companies. He said Japan has not nurtured private revenue sources for university-related start-ups and other collaborative research, falling dramatically behind the United States and China’s aggressive fostering of new schemes and incubators for growth. He has long advocated for government support to spearhead an academic culture of innovation.

The drop in public grants, viewed as crucial support for innovative research, has contributed to the nation’s decline in global competitiveness, experts say.

Public grants for research have gone down by 1% annually from 2004 until 2018, following the enactment of a regulation that made national universities independent administrative agencies. But OECD research and development statistics for the most advanced countries reveal private sector funds contributed only 2.6% of research costs in Japanese universities in 2017, compared to 14% in Germany and 4.8% in the United States.

The push for private revenue to boost research support is gaining attention in academia. Keiichi Fujiwara, director of the department of gynecologic oncology at Saitama Medical University International Medical Center, said he has received both Japanese public grants and participates in international clinical trials for gynaecological cancers supported by foreign funds.

The difference between the two experiences is wide, he explained, pointing out that Japanese infrastructure, including the number of supporting members at the hospital for investigator-initiated clinical trials, is much smaller than in the US. “The narrower support reduces the chances for successful breakthroughs for Japanese researchers,” he said.

The way forward, according to Fujiwara, is access to a range of financial sources including expanding private donations for research, still a new trend in Japan.

The example of Delete C

As a committee member of Delete C, a new Tokyo-based non-profit organisation directly donating to researchers conducting clinical trials to develop drugs for cancer eradication, Fujiwara said donations that focus on the patient as a priority are appealing to researchers. “In comparison, private sector research can be influenced by the economic goals of the corporation.”

Spokesperson for Delete C, Keiko Yamaguchi said the donations to support medical trials are aimed at raising the profile of individuals providing cash for research.

“The lack of a [philanthropic] donation culture in Japan is an important challenge. There are no large and influential civic organisations that support research, as is the case in the West,” the spokesperson said.

Yusuke Okuno, a medical researcher on genome analysis for paediatric cancer at Nagoya University Hospital, is a recipient of Delete C funds. His research team comprising five experts is supported by a mix of public grants and smaller donations from non-profit organisations.

While the small fund from Delete C can support clinical trials in just three patients, he sees it as an important landmark in Japanese research funding. “Donations extended directly to researchers has created many new [research funding] options and initiatives for experts,” he said.

Okuno described the fight for research funding in Japan as “a gamble”. This is because corporate funding is results-oriented and can have time limits that can reduce the chance of achieving breakthroughs. “Research can be a long and ongoing process and funds need to cater to that challenge,” he told University World News.

While Delete C donations are not extended for basic research, Keiko Yamaguchi explained that the Delete C funds come from individuals who want to support doctors and cancer treatment. “We want to change conservative attitudes that focus on risks [of research] rather than the possibility of success in clinical trials,” she said.

Corporate donors

A public-private joint venture with AnGes, a start-up originating in Osaka University Hospital, which is currently leading Japan’s COVID-19 DNA vaccine development, is still a rare example of research-based private collaboration in Japan.

Another recent landmark is a massive research fund of JPY10 billion (US$94 million) extended by Tadashi Yanai, the head of Uniqlo, a major apparel company, to Nobel Laureate Shinya Yamanaka’s research project on induced pluripotent stem cells and Dr Tasuku Honjo, an immunologist who won a joint Nobel Prize in 2018 for his cancer research.

The funding is a one-time donation from Yanai who wants to support cancer and virus research. The contribution will be distributed over 10 years to their research laboratories at Kyoto University. Kyoto University has established a Yanai Fund to monitor the donation.

Japan’s push to enhance private sector driven research has also created challenges. An ongoing high-profile lawsuit filed last June by Honjo is seeking JPY22.6 billion (US$213 million) in patent royalties from Ono Pharmaceutical that developed the cancer fighting drug, Opdivo, after a collaboration with his laboratory for 30 years.

Japanese universities are not always geared up to incorporate private funding initiatives in research, but there are some examples.

Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Beppu has many collaborative research and study programmes with corporations. Lailani Alcantara, professor of management studies, explained that corporate funding has supported several new student venture companies, a scheme that promotes globalisation in both academia and businesses in Japan.

“Private financial contributions for faculty-driven research supports global innovation and leads to economic wealth. Japanese universities need new systems that can access this approach better,” she said.

Eager to improve Japan’s edge in global research, Japan’s education minister last October announced a new public-private university fund, starting with an endowment of JPY4.5 trillion (US$42 billion) from 2021 and projected to reach JPY10 trillion from profits managed by third-party asset management companies. Gains will be used to increase research activity in universities.