A Practical Guide to Working as a Scientist in Japan

Robert W. Ridge

RIKEN, ERATO and the Japanese View of Basic Research

(Adapted from part of A. Kennaway's commentary in Nature 355:198-200, 1992)

It is well known that Japanese companies have a different view towards commercial innovation compared to other countries. To a far greater extent than elsewhere, they are intellectually independent, and their research workers work on practical applications as well as fundamental research. Japanese research leaders in general possess the ability to encourage new science with a long term view, knowing that if it were to become successful it would result in novel commercialisable, useful and profitable technology and products.

This sort of attitude has helped shape the structure of two government research programs, RIKEN and ERATO. Because the Ministry of Education controls half the public spending for science, which is spread rather thinly among the several hundred universities, the scientific community has sought other ways to fund science. The Science and Technology Agency, which reports to the Cabinet, directly funds RIKEN laboratories (the acronym stands for Institute of Physical and Chemical Research). The laboratory does not fund or look for good projects per se, but seeks outstanding research leaders who are highly innovative. Such people tend to be young PhDs who may work in government institutions, universities or private companies, and who are invited to work at RIKEN and are funded for five years. They are given total freedom to choose their projects and can find between five and ten young research workers. The group leader is given basic funding, but once settled on a line of work is given much more, and may invite an equivalent number of workers on a short term basis from Japan or abroad. The laboratory is deliberately multi-disciplinary and no boundaries exist to prevent different groups in different areas from working together. After five years the team is disbanded. Although it is an object of RIKEN to see that at least a third of its fifty groups are productive (that is useful results emerge from good work) its primary objective is to turn out highly motivated, experienced researchers who will go on to work elsewhere.

The second set of programs, ERATO, operates similarly in most respects except that the work is done at universities rather than at a special institute.

One of the most striking features of Japanese science is that it strives to look beyond the narrow confines of a specialist discipline; it strives to broaden its approach to embrace the humanities and general culture. Everyone in authority says that they have no difficulty in persuading the taxpayer to fund pure science, even in the expensive worlds of astronomy and physics, adding that this fulfils a basic curiosity to find out the origins of life and the Universe.

Thus, in some situations, research scientists in Japan are not handicapped by funds or constraining attitudes that impose timetables and topics. There is a general very healthy attitude to basic research in Japan that doesn't exist as much elsewhere. There is also a great respect in society for teachers and researchers who have made the mental leaps necessary to be at the forefront of research. In other countries academics are low on the prestige scale because they are judged by the amount of salary they are paid, rather than how they think and what they do. The Japanese attitude is thus a refreshing change, and academics in Japan really feel they are contributors to the national future.