History of RIKEN
Paving the way for young researchers
21 September 2007 (Volume 2 Issue 9)
Figure 1: Young researchers who won a position at RIKEN under the Special Postdoctoral Researchers Program are actively challenging basic research.
Fostering young researchers is crucial for Japan to become the nation underpinned by innovative science and technology that its longtime slogan boasts. To achieve this goal, in 1989 the then Science and Technology Agency (now the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology) joined hands with RIKEN and inaugurated the Special Postdoctoral Researchers Program to support young researchers.
The new program is unusually attractive; it provides young postdoctoral researchers, or post-docs, with a high-profile workplace at RIKEN laboratories where they can actively engage in original research under comfortable conditions (Fig. 1).
In the late 1990s, Japan was behind the USA and Europe in supporting young researchers. Many researchers at RIKEN and elsewhere thought that a lot of PhD graduates fresh out of college had to work for low wages until they were hired by universities on tenure; and they were also forced to spend much time on non-research activities on behalf of senior faculty members. These researchers add that Japan lacked an environment where young scientists could exercise their creativity.
The RIKEN Special Postdoctoral Researchers Program was expected to break with the rigid employment structure in Japan. At first, the program, supported by the Science and Technology Agency, accepted only 25 post-docs, but RIKEN gradually increased the budget and capacity. The number totaled 82 in 1996, when the government’s ambitious plan to produce 10,000 post-docs was launched under the ‘1st Science and Technology Basic Plan’. The program is basically a one-year contract but can be renewed for a maximum of three years, and also offers as much as ¥487,000 ($4,060) per month as a ‘reward’, in addition to ¥1.3 million ($10,800) to cover annual research expenses.
The program’s good reputation spread by word of mouth among young scientists, increasing the number of applicants from 78 in 1989 to 280 in 1996. By 2003, the number reached almost 400. RIKEN assumed full responsibility for the program in 2005.
The RIKEN ambitions to reach out to young researchers extended beyond research students. RIKEN was well aware of the importance of technicians who support very difficult experiments, so it established another program in 1993 to foster highly skillful ‘super technicians’.
In 1996, RIKEN also created a unique program called the Junior Research Associate (JRA) system, which targeted masters graduates enrolled in PhD courses. Successful applicants became part-time staffers at RIKEN. And although their rewards were much lower than the Special Postdoctoral Researchers Program, it helped raise the motivation of many students compelled to work part time in order to cover living costs while training to be a working scientist.
In 2001, RIKEN established what is now known as the Initiative Research Program, the purpose of which is to provide an opportunity for young researchers to organize and manage their own research unit. A unit usually consists of several researchers and technical assistants. It is hoped that, with this experience, unit leaders will sharpen their skills to become future leaders in the scientific research community.
The Program is now part of the Frontier Research System, and currently consists of seven units. These units are tackling novel themes such as elucidating the link between stress imposed on the endoplasmic reticulum and human diseases, designing photo-functional nucleic acids and proteins, and synthesizing functional oligomers.
This year RIKEN set up another program, known as ‘Foreign Postdoctoral Researcher’ (FPR), for young non-Japanese scientists who have demonstrated creative and innovative ideas, and who can be expected to become internationally active in the future. RIKEN is now accepting applications for FY2008 (http://www.riken.jp/engn/r-world/info/recruit/071005/index.html).