Growing numbers of “posudoku”—Japanese for postdoc, according to an article at The Japan Newsare having trouble finding “regular academic posts … even after they obtain doctoral degrees.” The number of postdocs rose from 6274 to 17,116 between 1996 and 2009, the article reports—yet the number of graduate students grew far more, from 98,650 in 1991 to 255,386 in 2013. That’s a lot of Ph.D. graduates who cannot expect to have even a postdoc position waiting, let alone a regular job.

This “growing number” of young scientists “who fail to find stable jobs” after completing their studies has raised concern in the Japanese government, which fears the situation “could shake the foundations of the nation’s research and development,” the article says.

As a remedy, the government plans to take the remarkable step of basing grants to universities “on the level of measures the university has taken for such postdoctoral researchers.” The goal is “[t]o ensure these postdoctoral researchers find research posts as regular employees either at their universities or at outside entities.” Among the measures the government intends to ask “national universities” to take are “increasing the number of posts within their institutions for young researchers and strengthening cooperation with the private sector so that they would be able to find stable jobs at companies as well.”

Will it work? Time will tell. But even if it doesn’t work, there are two astounding aspects to this policy, not even counting that remarkable linguistic coinage. First, the Japanese government, unlike its American counterpart, appears to have some idea of how many postdocs are working in the country. Second, and even more important, the government seems to have recognized the crucial role that attractive career paths play in recruiting the nation’s talented young people to science.

In April, scientific luminaries Bruce Alberts, former president of the National Academy of Sciences and former editor-in-chief of Science; Marc W. Kirschner, founding chair of the Department of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School; Shirley Tilghman, former president of Princeton University; and Harold Varmus, Nobel laureate and current director of the National Cancer Institute, pointed out, in a widely reported article, that the dismal career prospects of the young scientists trapped in America’s postdoc system have rendered the  U.S. research enterprise “unsustainable.” Numerous American observers have made a similar point for years. Yet, no concrete steps or official proposals to improve postdocs’ parlous situation have been set in motion by policymakers, politicians, or academic potentates. Instead, the major policy proposals being bruited in Washington ignore these realities and are likely to make matters worse. 

As American policymakers continue to blather about the need to keep up with the scientific competition in Asia, at least one Asian competitor seems to be doing something that’s likely to significantly strengthen its national research enterprise and the flow of its young talent into scientific research. Any chance, oh political and academic leaders, that something similar could happen in the United States?

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.

10.1126/science.caredit.a1400132