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Once a 'scientist's paradise,' Japan's Riken seeks new vitality

Government-controlled research institute needs its own sources of funding

Kosuke Morita, center, leader of the team that discovered the 113th element, dubbed nihonium, displays its symbol at a news conference in Fukuoka on Dec. 1, 2016.

TOKYO -- Riken, Japan's national research institute, celebrated its 100th anniversary this year. The organization was once called a "scientist's paradise," but those days seem to be over, as its research has been mostly determined by the government in recent years.

As it begins its next century, Riken, which employs some 3,000 researchers, is seeking to regain its freedom to decide its own research directions and fund them by commercializing its findings.

To many in Japan, Riken is known as a life sciences institute because of its infamous "discovery" of STAP (stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency) cells, which many believed was a major scientific breakthrough when it was announced in 2014. Riken later retracted the announcement, saying the research had been "fraudulent."

Many will remember Riken's more honorable achievement, the discovery of a new element, nihonium, which was recognized in 2016 by an international science body as the 113th element on the periodic table.

But to scientists around the world, Riken is a leading research organization that represents Japan's scientific endeavors.

Riken was established in 1917 based on a proposal by Jokichi Takamine, a chemist and first president of pharmaceutical company Sankyo, today's Daiichi Sankyo. Takamine insisted that Japan needed a national research organization like those in advanced countries in the West, where scientific discoveries in physics, chemistry and other areas help industry prosper. Industry heavyweights like Eiichi Shibusawa and then-Prime Minister Shigenobu Okuma, as well as academics, supported Takamine's idea and set up Riken.

Strong leadership

The greatest leader in Riken's 100-year history was Masatoshi Okochi, who became the institute's third president in 1921. In the hope of catching up with the West, Okochi, 42 at the time, recruited promising scientists regardless of their age. He reorganized the institute, which previously had consisted of the physics and chemistry divisions, and introduced the position of chief scientist. He set up a company to commercialize Riken's scientific results.

Riken makes a lot of money leasing its patented technologies. Such royalty payments in 1940 were enough to cover about 75% of research-related expenses. The technology to mass produce vitamin A, developed by Umetaro Suzuki, was among Riken's most profitable patented technologies.

Riken's campus in Wako, Saitama Prefecture (Photo courtesy of Riken)

Shinichiro Tomonaga, who joined Riken around that time, described Riken's research environment as "a paradise for scientists." The phrase has since become synonymous with the institute. Tomonaga later won a Nobel Prize in physics.

Riken, however, came to a major turning point after World War II. The government dissolved Riken Konzern, a group of spinoff companies -- 63 at its peak -- that used Riken's scientific achievements for commercial ends and returned the profits to the institute. Although some of the companies, such as Ricoh, Riken Vitamin and Riken Corp., an auto component maker, prospered on their own, the research institute itself lost sources of funding to finance its research.

In 1958, Riken became a quasi-governmental organization under the Science and Technology Agency, now the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. As a government-led research institute, Riken began on a new path, and, led by the government's push for scientific research, it started to grow again.

Riken then established branches across Japan, beginning with the Life Science Tsukuba Research Center in Ibaraki Prefecture in 1984 and later in places like Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture, and Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture. It also took part in the human genome project, a global effort to sequence the human genome. It then developed the SPring-8 synchrotron radiation facility, which allows for extremely finely detailed observation of substances, and the world's fastest supercomputer, K, both of which are now key research infrastructure.

However, it has become difficult for Riken to carry out research that is not in line with government policies. Projects based on ideas brought by individual researchers have fallen in number. Riken gave up its freedom as a research organization, and shifted its focus to projects that are expected to yield reasonable outcomes in about five years. Checks on data from experiments became less stringent, which probably allowed sloppy research like the STAP cell studies to emerge and damage Riken's reputation.

Funding crunch

In 2016, Riken was designated a national research and development agency, an institution tasked with carrying out international studies that lead to innovation. Although it now supposedly has greater autonomy, "things haven't changed much," Riken President Hiroshi Matsumoto said.

Japan's budget for scientific research has been flat in recent years. Grants to government-affiliated institutions like Riken have not increased. Despite its privileged-sounding status, it receives little preferential treatment, and interference by the government seems to be increasing.

The global trend for scientific research is for scientists from various fields to join hands in trying to solve social problems together by using advanced equipment such as observation facilities and analyzing vast amounts of data. Japan is lagging behind this trend and has little presence on the global stage. There is no guarantee that Riken can achieve in its next century what it did in its first.

Matsumoto is seeking ways to establish Riken's own sources of revenue to fund its research, similar to Riken Konzern. He has asked the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology and others to ease restrictions to allow Riken to make its investments on its own and increase its revenues from patent royalties.

The question is how the state can lead scientific research without sapping individual researchers' motivation. The navigation of Riken will ultimately determine the direction of Japan's scientific research.

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