A Practical Guide to Working as a Scientist in Japan

Robert W. Ridge

Getting and Managing a Research Grant

If you are able to, I recommend you try to get a research grant from Monbusho. If anything, it is an interesting experience. I recently wrote another small contribution to my Research School Newsletter on this subject, and reproduce it below.

Mini Essay: Research in Arrears

When you next whinge about the miserable state of research grants in this country, spare a thought for those trying to do research in Japanese universities. In the grant system in Australia, it is quite possible to plan ahead for as long as a grant lasts, say three or even five years, and you can offer employment to post-doctoral fellows, research fellows and technical assistants. In other words, you can develop strategies in your research and plan over the medium or even long term. Now take a deep breath and sit down, because what I am about to tell you will not only make your hair rise (singular hair in my case) but will make you extremely grateful for what you have.

In Japan, all government research grants to universities are ultimately controlled by the Ministry of Finance, which decrees that all bodies it funds must tie up their financial affairs every year within the financial year. For university researchers (state and private universities alike) the grants are mostly controlled and dished out by Monbusho, the Ministry of Education.

Let me tell you what happens in any particular financial year, which starts in April. Sometime in May, Monbusho notifies the universities that researchers can apply for grants and send for forms. The applications are reviewed by peers and successful applicants notified around mid-July. It is very hard not to get a grant because of the Japanese sense of democracy, but this means that most people get very small grants of perhaps Y1,000,000 (about Aust$10,000). It is rare that anyone gets what they ask for. In late July or early August, the money arrives. However, in the following January a directive from the administration arrives, stating that the financial year will be ending soon, so all funds must be spent by the last week of February. This gives them a month to get everything ready for the new financial year. About the same time, a request arrives for a report on the research work done, including a list of publications!

When this first happened to me I was mortified. So I turned to my colleagues for advice. It was a shame they hadn't volunteered it earlier. It turns out that although they can't change the system they hate, they have managed it quite well. For a start, they only apply for money for work they have already done. So they have no problems in writing their final report with list of publications. As for having no money for half the year, most researchers make `arrangements' with their usual suppliers to supply a large bill for a phantom purchase, say nine hundred million Gilson tips, and then during the year they can gradually erode this `credit' with purchases. This works well, but it does mean that the money is tied up with one or several suppliers and there is less flexibility for other purchases.

The university system in Japan doesn't allow for technical posts, and because of the system of grant awards, there are also no technical assistants on `soft' money either. Thus, professors use honours and postgraduate students as `slaves'. When I wanted to use some spare grant money to employ a technical assistant in the laboratory, I was advised to seek out a local housewife! There is no post-doctoral fellowship system, except those funded by various bodies for exchange with other countries, such as that organised by the Royal Society in the UK and the AAS in Australia with (eg) the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science. So the only real post-doctoral fellows are foreigners.

I should say that the scene is a little different in the non-university research institutes directly funded by separate ministries (eg the Ministry of Agriculture) where the researchers are given very generous and continuous funding, and much better, well-equipped laboratories. However, in industry the story is almost fairytale. Laboratory conditions are superb, there are many well-trained technical staff in permanent positions available for researchers, and funding is amazing. And of course they are not confined to the financial year strait-jacket of university research. It is said that the annual R & D bill for Hitachi alone equals the total amount administered by Monbusho to university research, and the `big three' (Hitachi, Mitsubishi and Toyota) spend more on research than the total administered by the government to all the universities and national research institutes!

Having said all this I would hate to put off anyone with ideas of working in Japan. My three years there were very wonderful indeed, and, believe it or not, I did get some research done. I also made life-long friendships. With everyone getting about the same level of funding, there seems to be a promotion of collaboration and sharing not always seen everywhere. Perhaps I'm mistaken, after all the Japanese are a very kind, gentle and generous people, but the lack of intense monetary-based competition seems to lead to a kind of we-are-all-in-this-together attitude, rather than being at loggerheads for funds. And although this may not necessarily be healthy for innovation in science, it is a comradeship that is hard to define but is there all the same, and I liked it a lot.

Please try Japan if you get the chance, you can do nothing but gain from the experience, and it will certainly make you appreciate some of the things `back home'.