July 14, 2017

Encouraging a long-term perspective

Shigeo Koyasu, Executive Director, RIKEN

How important is a stable working environment for producing great science?

To succeed in science, we need to work on projects that require long time frames. For projects with relatively short time frames, scientists typically write a paper and then get a new position and repeat the cycle. Sending out bright researchers to other scientific organizations is beneficial for science in some ways, but for RIKEN to grow stronger, we need more researchers either with permanent positions or with relatively permanent positions, which we call indefinite-term employees.

Therefore, we recently revised our personnel rules to enable us to hire more indefinite-term researchers. These research staff have a secure job until the age of 60, with an optional five-year extension, which allows them to focus on more long-term goals. We are aiming to increase the proportion of RIKEN research staff on these indefinite term or permanent contracts from the current 10 per cent up to about 30–40 per cent.

Why do you see long-term contracts as being essential?

To tackle very difficult problems. Addressing some of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, for example, will require a long-term view. You can’t achieve a goal that takes a decade to solve if you have a five-year limit. The time constraint makes researchers reluctant to tackle the big challenges. A good example is our synthesis of element 113, which has now officially been named nihonium (symbol Nh). It took 20 years to achieve that goal. Certain projects require a long-term view and effort. At RIKEN, we believe this is important.

People talk a lot about collaboration.How does RIKEN foster internal collaboration?

We recently launched several interdisciplinary, RIKEN-wide projects. For example, we wanted to tackle the problems associated with an aging society, so we put a call out to see who wanted to join the project from across the institute. This enabled us to connect people within RIKEN—researchers at Wako, Yokohama, Kobe and our other campuses. The project is not limited to biologists—engineers, physicists and chemists can also join. This kind of top-down approach combined with bottom-up proposals could help researchers to realize that working with others might not be so bad and could generate synergistic new fields.

Is this a new approach?

Not quite so new. When I became director of the RIKEN Center for Integrative Medical Sciences in Yokohama in 2014, I asked all the principal investigators to give me 30 per cent of their time to tackle a problem together, such as type 2 diabetes and atopic dermatitis. I believe the collaboration was a success. I’d like to expand this kind of approach RIKEN wide. Even with a limited budget, we can achieve a lot. And we could even expand this approach to include researchers at universities or in industry.

President Matsumoto has proposed ‘innovation designers’ to suggest problems for scientists to solve. How will they work with RIKEN’s existing advisory councils?

We’ve yet to determine where these innovation designers fit within the current RIKEN structure. We are still searching for candidates and clarifying how to proceed with those discussions. But I think it is important to give them lots of freedom to propose new ideas. They should not be obliged to realize these ideas. It is important to give them the freedom to think and advise. We plan to implement this proposal by April 2017.

(RIKEN Research 2017 Centennial issue)