China lures increasing numbers of research scholars from Japan

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TOKYO: An increasing number of Japanese scholars are filling research posts at universities and laboratories in China. In the past, China had mainly welcomed engineers from Japanese companies, but it is now looking to attract academics in astronomy and other basic fields of science.

This trend contrasts with Japan, where scholars are struggling to find jobs because of budget cuts by universities. China has sharply increased spending on research programs over the past 20 years, edging closer to the U.S. in both the quality and quantity of research papers.

Hiromu Kameoka, a former assistant professor at Tohoku University, became a group leader at the Center for Excellence in Molecular Plant Sciences of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in September 2022. He set up his own team at the Shanghai-based center operated jointly with the John Innes Centre, a British organization well known for botanical studies. “I wanted to be an independent researcher as early as possible,” he said.

Kameoka took a post as a fixed-term assistant professor at Tohoku in 2020 after stints at universities such as Osaka Prefectural University, now Osaka Metropolitan University, following graduate work at the University of Tokyo. He had always wanted to head his own laboratory but was never given the chance in Japan.

Scholars often aim to become the principal investigator overseeing a lab. Kameoka submitted an application to the CAS for what he thought would be the first of many in finding an overseas research post. But “by good fortune” his application to the center was accepted, he said, and he was hired after two interviews — one online and another in-person in Britain.

Kamemoka studies symbiotic relations between soil microbes and plants. A type of mold called arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi gathers phosphorus and nitrogen in the soil and transfers the nutrients to plants to help them grow. The mold may be helpful as a “microbial fertilizer” while carrying a low environmental load, he said.

Kameoka’s lab in China provides an excellent environment for steady, long-term studies. “I am more fortunate than many others, even in China,” he said. Some 90 million yen ($642,719) was provided to set up the laboratory and cover five years of research. He also has access to advanced equipment such as a mass analyzer and confocal microscope. The laboratory is also staffed with engineers for maintenance and other assignments.

With a team of 50 to 60 botanical researchers, the lab is a rarity in the world, Kameoka said. It is in “an extremely good atmosphere” based on strong relations with peers, as evidenced by the sharing of labware. Kameoka’s term is five years but can be extended for five more years if he passes screening. “I want to work for more than five years,” he said.

Little information exists on the number of Japanese academics based in China. But what is available shows an increase in the number, partly because the research environment in China is looking more attractive as the levels of research rise.

Motoyuki Hattori, a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, is often asked for advice by Japanese scholars who want to work in China. He stressed that the level of research and availability of posts are “different stories” when compared with Japan. Even if the required research level in China is high, it is easy to find positions despite a bumper crop of academics. “While the number of available posts is overwhelmingly large in China, it is overwhelmingly small in Japan,” he said.

The number of Japanese scholars in China is said to be large in the fields of biotechnology, life science, astronomy and pedestal physics. In astronomy, considered a basic science, there is a dearth of available positions in most of the world. In China, however, new faculties and laboratories are being created, as the government has decided to promote research in basic science as well as applied science.

The Tsung-Dao Lee Institute at Shanghai Jiao Tong University aims to become a world-class research body in astrophysics. Proposed by Tsung-Dao Lee, a Chinese-American physicist who won the Noble Prize in Physics, the institute was established in 2016 and is promoting research in astronomy, quantum mechanics and particle physics.

Yosuke Mizuno, a Japanese scholar studying black hole astrophysics, has been serving as an associate professor at the institute since 2020. He is also a member of the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), an international project that captured an image of a black hole. While part of the EHT team, he had been looking for a research post in Japan and other countries and eventually found one at the Tsung-Dao Lee Institute.

Openings for astronomers are increasing in China due to the establishment of astronomy departments at universities. American and European scholars often find it difficult to move to China, as its research culture differs greatly from that of their countries. Despite this and other differences, “Japanese have chances” in China, Mizuno said.

Japanese scholars are also attracted to China due to the country having the largest number of academics in the world, and that it has closed in on the U.S. as the biggest spender on research and development. Ample funding has resulted in attractive, well-equipped laboratories, generous salaries for researchers and other incentives that allow scholars to fully devote themselves to their projects.

China has been rapidly strengthening its global footprint in research and development since the start of the 2000s. It ranked 10th around 2000 in the number of most cited research papers produced, according to Japan’s National Institute of Science and Technology Policy . But since 2008, the country has finished second, except in 2018 when it edged out the U.S. for the top spot.

While China aims to become the world’s top research country in basic science, problems are starting to emerge. The deepening U.S.-China conflict, for example, has made it difficult for the two giants to conduct joint studies. In addition, the international situation is starting to cast a shadow over studies in fields of science that are not directly linked to military technology, experts said.

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