History of RIKEN
Getting ahead in neuroscience
27 April 2007 (Volume 2 Issue 4)
Figure 1: The BSI has been contributing to boosting Japan’s brain science research effort over the past 10 years.
In the 1970s, the exciting and challenging field of brain science drew scientists from various backgrounds to pioneer new cross-disciplinary research. In Japan, the focus of brain research is largely at RIKEN’s Brain Science Institute (BSI), which has grown into one of the world’s largest and most competitive neuroscience bodies just 10 years after it was established in 1997.
In the US and Europe, government support for neuroscience research expanded throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Around that time, Japanese policymakers also recognized the importance of brain science, but neuroscientists were exasperated at their slowness to take action—even after the US embarked on the ‘Decade of the Brain’ in 1990 to provide generous support for neuroscience. In 1993, some of these researchers voluntarily organized an annual symposium called ‘the Century of the Brain’ to educate the public and solicit their understanding.
In April 1996, Masao Ito, a neuroscientist at RIKEN submitted to the government a recommendation on the promotion of neuroscience. Four months later, Ito and members of a government study group compiled a report and proposed Japan inject as much as 2 trillion yen into neuroscience over the next 20 years. The group recommended setting long-term goals, and called for the establishment of a large brain research institute with three main research themes—understanding the brain, protecting the brain and creating the brain. A fourth theme, nurturing the brain, was added in 2003.
Neuroscience research at RIKEN actually started as special projects back in 1977. In 1986, RIKEN founded the Frontier Research System, in which three research teams—dedicated to neuroscience—were first established two years later. In the early 1990s, brain science research gathered momentum within RIKEN such that 10 brain research teams had formed by 1996. Then, following Ito’s lead, RIKEN submitted a budget request to create the BSI. In 1997, the BSI was founded to realize 20-year strategic goals (Fig. 1).
The BSI took a new approach to make it internationally competitive. First, it employed all researchers on a contract basis, not lifetime employment, and only those who passed strict evaluation had their contracts renewed. This system was effective to garner young, capable researchers from around the world. The BSI also aimed to employ 30% of its researchers from abroad. Currently, the number is slightly below target, but the nationality base of researchers is diversifying and about one-fifth of the team leaders are non-Japanese. Moreover, international collaboration has been notable. For example, the BSI and the group led by Susumu Tonegawa at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology set up a joint research center in 19981.
To make the institute progressive and improve management skills, group directors at the BSI have held discussions to decide internal protocols and implemented recommendations of the advisory council. The BSI also initiated stimulating and valuable activities: it holds an annual retreat, hears seminars given by guest lecturers almost weekly, and organizes a summer school for students from around the world to introduce the appeal of cutting-edge neuroscience.
The BSI has developed rapidly to become a large institute with more than 50 laboratories and units and more than 500 staffers. Its researchers publish more than 300 original papers related to neuroscience every year. Meanwhile, since its establishment, the BSI has obtained more than 350 patents, including one for the development of fluorescent proteins that are useful to mark targeted genes and cells.
Researchers at the BSI are aiming to maintain their innovative research approach and continue to differentiate their institute from rival institutes in the US and Europe.