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Politics

Japan to pay Ph.D. students in quest for cutting-edge tech

Can $23,000 a year persuade master's students to go for doctorates?

In Japan, many gifted students have to think twice before advancing to doctoral courses due to the financial plight these studies inflict.

TOKYO -- Beginning in April, 7,800 doctoral students in Japan will be eligible to receive an annual 2.4 million yen ($23,139) in living expenses, as they take part in a government program meant to maintain the country's global competitiveness in cutting-edge technologies.

The government will provide the funds to universities, which will pick the recipients. Universities working on artificial intelligence, quantum technologies and other disciplines are more likely to be chosen to take part in the program.

In giving universities the discretion to choose grant recipients, the government will ask them to shoulder a quarter to one-third of the financial aid.

The government also plans to support the research expenses for some of the students on top of the cost-of-living support. The amount is likely to be 500,000 yen, or $,4780, per doctoral student per year.

In Japan, many gifted students have to think twice before advancing to doctoral courses due to the financial plight these studies inflict.

Among scientific students taking master's courses, 23.6% regarded "upgrading of financial support" as the most important factor in deciding to advance to a doctoral program, while 21.6% cited "employment in the private sector," according to a survey conducted in 2008 by the National Institute of Science and Technology Policy. The economic situation surrounding graduate students has become worse since this survey, may experts say.

The financial aid is meant to avert a drop in the number of doctoral students, which would result in fewer young researchers engaging in cutting-edge lab work.

In 2000, 16.7% of students advanced to doctoral programs from master's courses, but by 2018 the ratio had dropped to 9.3%.

The seriousness of Japan's precariousness is clear from a global perspective. Japan had 127 Ph.D. holders per 1 million people in 2000, compared to 141 in the U.S. and 131 in South Korea. By 2015, the U.S. had 259 doctorate holders per million and South Korea had 256. Japan had fallen to 118.

The government estimates that a doctoral student needs 1.8 million yen to 2.4 million yen per year to cover living expenses. In the 2018 school year, Ph.D. students spent an average of 2.3 million yen on living expenses, according to a survey conducted by the Japan Student Services Organization, or JASSO.

Planning to spend 23 billion yen on the first-year program, the government set aside 20 billion yen in the third supplementary budget for fiscal 2020 and put 3 billion yen into the fiscal 2021 budget plan.

In addition, the government and academic community in 2022 will begin managing a joint investment fund of 1 billion yen, dividends from which will eventually be used to cover the support program for doctorate students.

Until then, the government will finance the program itself through budgetary measures.

Japan has some 74,000 students in doctoral programs. While JASSO and other entities offer scholarships, only 7,500 students receive enough financial support to cover living expenses.

To remedy the situation, the government in fiscal 2021 will adopt a five-year basic plan for its science and technology policy. A draft of the plan calls for raising the ratio of doctoral students eligible to receive support for living expenses to 30%. This was raised from 20% in the initial plan after the government decided to create the new financial aid system.

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