RIKEN’S place in the world
RIKEN has pioneered external evaluations in Japan. Last month the RIKEN Advisory Council (RAC) met for the sixth time since its first meeting in 1993. The 23-member council, including Nobel laureate Dr. Yuan Tseh Lee of Taiwan and 12 other distinguished foreign professors, mulled over reports and presentations from various RIKEN representatives and weighed positive developments against shortcomings. Here, fresh after the conclusion of the week-long meeting, RIKEN President Ryoji Noyori and Dr. Zach Hall, President of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine and RAC Chair, answer questions about the council and its findings.
No other organization in Japan carries out an evaluation of this scope, scale, and international nature. Please describe the RAC’s significance and its goals.
Noyori: The RAC is crucial for our survival. Even the strongest organizations only survive if they continue to adapt. The ability to learn from history and to face reality full on will be the life force of RIKEN. Blindness could trigger our decline. We need to hear the voices of many sectors and many learned people.
Hall: President Noyori chose an extremely distinguished committee including people who have headed major institutions in Sweden, the United Kingdom, France, Taiwan, and the United States. It is an honour to be on the committee. We come because we see RIKEN as an institution that has the potential to lead Japanese science into a new era.
We were very impressed that RIKEN implemented recommendations from the last council. I have been on a number of advisory committees. People sometimes say they want your advice, but when you give it, they do not respond. RIKEN’s desire for advice is serious. Our job is not to point it in new directions but simply to offer suggestions. Some details need to be worked out, but we think RIKEN is very much on the right track.
What have been notable achievements for RIKEN since the last RAC in 2004?
Noyori: One of the recommendations was to set up a system of governance that could manage RIKEN through an open and accountable process. In response, we established a powerful advisory system, the RIKEN Science Council, consisting of selected RIKEN scientists, who propose many things from the scientist’s perspective. We also have powerful top-down leadership which we strengthened with a president’s discretionary fund of JPY 1.2 billion. These two systems come together to decide priorities for research.
Hall: One of the key goals from 2004 was to increase visibility. We have been very pleased with RIKEN’s efforts to reach out to the public. RIKEN News has been important. The President too has been a very effective ambassador often making himself available to the public.
One signal achievement of President Noyori has been to instil a sense of unity. The range of sciences that RIKEN oversees is astonishing - from the subnuclear all the way to behavioural and cognitive sciences. You could just let the scientists do their own thing. But we believe, and RIKEN believes, that there are important synergies from having physical sciences and life sciences together. If I may quote President Noyori, “It’s ok for an institute to be independent, but it can’t be isolated.” As an example, I talked to one RIKEN scientist studying molecular trafficking in cells. He was using an extremely sophisticated microscope that he had designed here with a RIKEN physicist. You cannot buy an instrument like that anywhere.
Like all Japanese research institutes, RIKEN has struggled to make its staff more diverse in terms of age, sex, and nationality. How has RIKEN done in meeting this challenge?
Noyori: In terms of graduate students, we are doing well. There are now 1200 graduate students. We need however to increase the number of women scientists in leading positions as opposed to technical positions. Currently only 7% of senior scientists are women.
The biggest problem is the ratio of foreign researchers. At ten percent, it is higher than the Japanese average of 1.4% for universities and public research centres, but it is still too low. We need to reach twenty percent quickly. At the same time, we should focus on the quality rather than the number of researchers. Professor Hall suggested recruiting “big shot” researchers from overseas to head the institutes. That’s a possibility.
In the end, we should import talented scientists to Japan at the same time we export many talented Japanese overseas.
...so that Japan becomes a stepping stone in a researcher’s career just like other major scientific countries?
Hall: That’s exactly right. We applaud RIKEN’s commitment to these goals. We also recognize the problems of language and of being a relatively closed, homogenous society. RIKEN is very progressive in bringing Japan in line with the international community in recruiting foreign and women researchers. Increasingly science will be done in an international marketplace where people move freely from one country to another. RIKEN needs to take advantage of that.
What are RIKEN’s future directions?
An x-ray free electron laser, being constructed at Japan's SPring-8 facility pictured here, will keep RIKEN at the cutting edge of molecular studies into the future.
Hall: We were delighted to see three new large-scale projects. One is the x-ray free electron laser being developed at SPring-8, which will probably be the best of the three major ones being developed around the world. The second is RIBF [Radioisotope Beam Factory, the world’s largest cyclotron system] at the Nishina Centre which will be a major resource in investigating nuclear structure. The big news is that it will be open to researchers outside of RIKEN. The third is a petaflop supercomputer.
These are all exciting large-scale plans that will benefit science in Japan and indeed worldwide.
Noyori: We are making essential infrastructure for the scientific community. This will help RIKEN maximize the visibility of our facilities and our research. Such facilities can only be established at a public research institute like RIKEN.
What still needs to be done?
Hall: Collaboration and interaction with other sectors, such as the clinical research community, within Japan and with scientists worldwide. The budget is going to shrink, so selection and concentration will be important.
Hall: We want to see RIKEN continue with more collaborations inside the organization and with stronger ties externally. RIKEN has some unique strengths that no other institution in the world has. We see RIKEN as a potential world leader.