02 March 2008

From university research centers to international research hubs?

From university research centers to international research hubs?
by Charles Jannuzi

In the post-bubble Japan of the 1990s, the private sector's ability to finance scientific research and development went into stagnation and then decline. So from 1995 on the government has pursued an expanded role in the management and funding of scientific R&D at annual levels that equal or exceed 1% of GDP. In great part this has been through the dominant role of its super-ministry, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) and its five-year 'Science and Technology Basic Plans'.

In order to increase public subsidy of scientific research-- while at the same time forcing research universities and research institutes to compete for funds--MEXT established a 'Centers of Excellence' program. However, this turned out to be a fairly diffuse program, paying for the construction of dozens of new research facilities all over the country at the former national universities and a handful of elite private ones. While this did a lot to help refurbish the appearance of the visibly deteriorated national universities, its actual boost to important scientific results is questionable.

It seems that the ministry was betting on being able 'to seed' indiscriminately a rather large number of projects in many different fields. Critics pointed out that in the process there had been a lack from the top down of any selectivity or a sense of priorities. The MEXT's even-handed beneficence (at least towards its former national universities and some top private institutions, such as Keio U. and Waseda U.) led to the scatter-shot construction of dozens of relatively small-scale facilities hosted by second-tier institutions.

The subsequent dilution of focus and, more importantly, the total amounts of funding did not impress the greater world community of Big Science. Most of the money went into the physical construction of the facilities as opposed actually to funding research. Moreover, it has been difficult for the colleges of science and technology at many universities to staff the new research centers appropriately because they lack long track records of achievement in research. This lack of a history combined with contractual employment seem to be too risky and potentially unstable for many junior careerists.

Under the prerogatives of its third Science and Technology Basic Plan (begun 2006), the MEXT sought to address the issues of a lack of priorities and inadequacy of scale. Most significantly it announced a long-term, deep-pocketed but highly selective program it calls the 'World Premier International Research Center Initiative' (WPIRCI). The WPIRCI was to be a contest that rewarded only FIVE institutions in fiscal year 2007. But the winners will get at least ten years of support (with five year renewals based on documented results). And the funding totals could approach a figure close to USD $60 million. Most importantly, since some support has to come from the host institutions, much of the new funding may actually go towards high-priority research and not be completely exhausted on the construction of new facilities.

The results of the competition were announced and explained in late 2007, with some updates appearing last month (Feb. 2008) . For those who follow scientific research at the (former) national universities and (the former) national research institutes in Japan, the results were quite predictable. Japan's top-ranked research universities, whose establishment goes back to the old imperial system, are the winners. They are Tokyo University, Kyoto University, Tohoku University and Osaka University. The former national research institute, The National Institute for Materials Science (NIMS), will also host a new center. NIMS's work in nano-technology and nano-architechtonics is done in partnership with still yet another former national university, University of Tsukuba (a new science university that does not have imperial system roots).

Although the new centers will be hosted by long-established research institutions, they are supposed to break from tradition in at least two ways. First, research and operations will have English as their official language (even if this proves to be impossible in Japan). And they must hire at least 20% foreign nationals. Most likely many of these will be chosen from the foreign nationals already at the institutions doing doctoral or post-doctoral work. Presumably even some Japanese nationals will be forced into a contractual personnel system, with contracts being 5 or 7 years.

According to updated information recently posted at the website of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) <http://www.jsps.go.jp/english/index.html>
the results are:

1. Tohoku University - WPI Advanced Institute for Materials Research
2. The University of Tokyo - Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe
3. Kyoto University - Institute for Integrated Cell-Material Sciences
4. Osaka University - Immunology Frontier Research Center
5. National Institute for Materials Science (NIMS) - International Center for Materials Nanoarchitectonics

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