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Science & Technology

December 5, 2005
Volume 83, Number 49
pp. 54–59

Long Live RIKEN

At 88, Japan's premier research institute thrives but struggles with global isolation

Amanda Yarnell


Strategically Located

RIKEN's five institutes are located on Honshu, Japan's largest island

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RIKEN, Japan's premier scientific research institute, is celebrating its 88th birthday this year. That milestone may not strike Westerners as noteworthy, but in Japan, “one's 88th birthday is a particularly happy and joyous occasion,” says Ryoji Noyori, RIKEN's president. To explain, he draws the characters for 88 next to the one that signifies rice-a venerated staple that symbolizes happiness and longevity in Japan-and points to their resemblance.

“RIKEN is among the most important research institutes not only in Japan but also all over the world,” says Noyori, who was recruited to lead the institute in 2003 after a long career at Nagoya University that culminated in his receipt of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. But he admits that RIKEN faces significant challenges, including how to reverse its historical isolation from the rest of the world.

The institute was created in 1917 as the Institute of Physical & Chemical Research, the Japanese name of which is abbreviated as RIKEN. Today it is a comprehensive research operation spanning the fields of chemistry, physics, biology, medical science, and engineering. Its research budget is more than $700 million per year, the bulk of which comes from the Japanese government. In comparison, Japan's government will spend approximately $10 billion on science research in 2005.

RIKEN now ranks in the top 1% of citation rankings in 10 different fields, from chemistry to neuroscience, Noyori says. It ranks fourth in the world-behind Harvard University, Stanford University, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology-in terms of the average impact of all the papers it publishes, he adds.

RIKEN is also making its mark beyond the walls of academia. “RIKEN's mission requires us to conduct top-quality research and to return the results of that research to society,” Noyori says. RIKEN has commercialized a number of its scientific findings, including a method for producing an alkaline cellulose-based detergent and a way to breed new plants that have rare flower colors by irradiating seeds to produce mutations.



Noyori attributes RIKEN's success to a three-pronged research structure that nurtures both basic research and useful applications while still encouraging pie-in-the-sky ideas. The institute's main Wako campus, northwest of Tokyo, is home to the Discovery Research Institute's (DRI) more than three dozen laboratories pursuing curiosity-driven basic research. Other institutes and centers at Wako and RIKEN's four other campuses focus on specific shorter term goals aimed at improving public health, such as the profiling of genetic abnormalities.

Bridging the basic and applied research systems is RIKEN's so-called Frontier Research System (FRS), which funds risky ideas for short periods with the hope that some of them will yield high-impact results. On the basis of budget and staff size, “FRS's contribution to RIKEN seems to be rather small,” admits FRS's director, organic chemist Kohei Tamao. “But RIKEN's dynamism and vitality spring from FRS. New programs incubated in FRS activate RIKEN as a whole.”

This bet seems to be paying off: RIKEN's world-renowned Brain Science Institute got its start at FRS. Hoping to replicate that success, FRS is now funding a half-dozen ambitious but risky goals on a short-term basis.

Within each of the three research systems, RIKEN has no trouble attracting talented Japanese scientists. RIKEN's chief attraction, its top scientists say, is its environment. “We've brought scientists from many disciplines together here,” says Koji Kaya, an organic chemist and the director of DRI. “And the internal funding that RIKEN offers frees our scientists to work on their research.”

“Structural changes in Japan's universities have foisted very important but very nonscientific duties upon faculty,” says physical chemist Toshinori Suzuki. For instance, recent reforms in Japan's universities have forced faculty to devote much of their attention to administrative duties and issues such as lab safety, he notes. He's grateful that RIKEN has allowed him to focus all of his attention on research.

Mizuo Maeda, a polymer chemist who quit a job at Kyushu University in southwestern Japan to come to RIKEN's Wako campus, shares this sentiment. “Coming to RIKEN has given me the freedom to devote myself to research,” he says.

In addition, RIKEN's top-notch equipment and reputation make it easy for chief scientists to recruit talented postdocs and staff, notes RIKEN materials chemist Yoshinori Ito. Lab heads can also hire a limited number of graduate students through collaborative research agreements with neighboring universities.

Some scientists are also attracted to RIKEN because it is experimenting with a far-from-traditional employment system. Academic scientists in Japan enjoy guaranteed lifetime employment. At FRS, the Brain Science Institute, and the Yokohama and Kobe campuses, however, all laboratory heads are employed for fixed terms and must undergo regular independent evaluations to renew their contracts. The institute hopes the competition this contract system engenders will spark the brightest to do their best work.

The goal comes with its own risks. “We have some 2,000 contract researchers at RIKEN,” Tamao says, including a huge number of young postdoctoral researchers. “Their future is an important issue at RIKEN right now.”

Like other major research institutes all over the world, RIKEN must address problems of funding and keeping innovation at a high pace. Unique to RIKEN, however, is the problem of global isolation and its effect on the institute's ability to recruit and maintain talent.

Noyori is keen to improve RIKEN's integration with the rest of the world. Japan has a long history of isolation, and RIKEN continues to struggle to recruit international scientists and postdocs. Fewer than 400 of its approximately 2,700 research staff are from outside Japan. The biggest challenge facing the institute is how to overcome insularity to succeed in an increasingly global scientific world, he says.

“Japan can be isolating in terms of language and culture,” Kaya admits. “We don't have the melting-pot culture that might encourage foreign scientists to come and settle here.”

Without a critical mass of foreign scientists, Japanese remains the primary language for scientific, administrative, and personal purposes at RIKEN, even though most of the institute's scientific personnel speak English. The notable exception is the Brain Science Institute, for which RIKEN may be best known on the international stage. One-fifth of that institute's research staff and laboratory chiefs are from outside Japan, and English is commonly heard in the labs.

Foreign scientists in Japan also face red tape and other obstacles, Noyori notes. For instance, the closest international secondary school to RIKEN's main campus is nearly an hour away, the distance making it difficult for those with families. The institute is now lobbying its local prefecture to start an international school in the area.


World Class RIKEN's 8-GeV synchrotron, which provides the strongest synchrotron light in the world, was built on a mountain in western Honshu to protect it from the region's frequent earthquakes.

To help raise RIKEN's international profile and attract foreign talent, the institute maintains joint facilities at Brookhaven National Laboratory and MIT. This year, Noyori announced a collaborative agreement with Biopolis, Singapore's new science research park. Noyori hopes that these initiatives will also help encourage RIKEN faculty to collaborate with researchers overseas.

As RIKEN looks to its future, “we must develop ways to create new fields of science,” Kaya says. Nurturing good research scientists who understand many disciplines and can cross boundaries is key, he suggests.

Toward that end, RIKEN is committed to establishing links between the geographically and scientifically diverse research groups that call RIKEN home, Noyori says. “Independence is appreciated,” he says, “But we cultivate collaboration and discourage isolation.”

Noyori points to the continuing collaboration between X-ray crystallographers at RIKEN's Harima campus in western Japan and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopists at its Yokohama campus. Together, they are solving the three-dimensional structures of 2,500 proteins thought to be crucial to cell function.

At the Wako campus, meanwhile, the new joint nanoscience laboratory offers scientists from all over RIKEN, and beyond, access to communal clean rooms, atomic force microscopes, and other state-of-the-art instrumentation.

“In Japan's universities, it's tough to break departmental boundaries,” says Shigeyuki Yokoyama, a structural biologist who heads RIKEN's joint Harima-Yokohama protein structure campaign. With a workforce of highly trained research staff, top-notch facilities, and leadership committed to promoting research across disciplines, he says, “RIKEN is uniquely positioned to do true interdisciplinary research.”


Long Live RIKEN

At 88, Japan's premier research institute thrives but struggles with global isolation.

Rooted in Chemistry

RIKEN Bets On Risky Projects With Big Potential.


Despite Its Expanded Mission, RIKEN Continues Its Rich History Of Chemical Research.

Strategically Located

RIKEN's five institutes are located on Honshu, Japan's largest island.

Chemical & Engineering News
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