Japan may only just be starting to develop a national policy on science but its 47 prefectures are competing to be the next Silicon Valley. Martin Ince reports
Japanese science, technology and innovation are in the grip of a national panic. The focus of the problem is a university system that has little enthusiasm for contact with the outside world and is especially reluctant to engage in commercial research.
By local standards the problem is being tackled with some vigour: but for the visitor from a country where universities have mission statements, research contracts officers and intellectual property experts the pace of change seems designed to avoid upset rather than to push Japanese universities into the new millennium.
Yukio Sato, director general of the National Institute of Science and Technology Policy, points out that Japan is only now starting to develop its first genuine science policy, as the result of a 1995 basic law on science.
The law stresses solving weaknesses such as the under-supply of researchers and the poor dissemination of research results. One objective is the doubling of postdoctoral and support staff to 10,000. But Dr Sato said that the most remarkable aspect of the plan is the amount of money it involves. In the ten years to 2005 it calls for science spending to be doubled. Despite the country's deep financial problems there is a 5 per cent increase in the current financial year.
Dr Sato is more cautious about the prospect of enthusing Japan's academics with the enterprise culture. He said: "The inertia in the system is very large, because Monbusho (the education ministry) has had complete control over researchers. We are now seeing a little more collaboration with industry and a few more academics having interests in venture businesses."
But one problem that has yet to be solved is the dearth of information about just what industry is buying when it signs a research contract with an academic. There has never been any formal research assessment in Japan, and few academics think it would be a good idea. But last year Ryaturo Hashimoto, the prime minister, introduced a scheme for all organisations getting government money for research to be audited for effectiveness. This includes universities as well as public bodies such as the space agency NASDA and Dr Sato's organisation, NISTEP. Dr Sato said: "The first analyses are being carried out by teams that have a good representation of foreign researchers." Dr Sato adds that, so far, there is no mechanism for a poor review to cost the institution money, although this too might change at some point.
In the longer term some laboratories and universities may be considered for some kind of agency status, semi-detached from government, although at the moment few of them have enough non-government income for this to make sense.
The 1995 basic law also provides for overhauling Japan's decision-taking machinery for science, especially by allowing Monbusho, a superministry with more than 130,000 staff and responsibility for sport, science and culture as well as education, to swallow the Science and Technology Agency (of which NISTEP forms part) as part of a general bid to cut the huge number of Japanese ministries and agencies. The STA runs research institutions in fields including space, atomic energy, physics and chemistry and marine science, but other ministries also run big laboratories: for example, the international trade and industry ministry, MITI, has its own physics and chemistry labs and owns the geological survey. Some sort of reform seems to be needed, but even here, the contrast with the British system whereby government departments move or merge overnight is stark. In Tokyo, the bureaucrats are contemplating a five-year merger process beginning with a little gentle exchange of personnel.
According to Hiko Yama of Monbusho's international division, the department is now trying to solve many of the bureaucratic problems that bedevil attempts to get industry and universities to speak to one another. "We are starting with the exchange of people," he said. "It ought to be possible for academics to work in industry for a while without damaging themselves financially, which we are now trying to make more feasible. We have also passed a proposal to allow academic expertise to be passed to industry more easily, and we have looked at patenting and ways of making universities' intellectual property more available to universities."
In addition, all universities are being encouraged to set up technology licensing organisations to find expertise in universities that might go unnoticed by industry and make sure firms make the most of it.
If it works, the result could be financial gain for the institution, the academic, or both.
Not everyone thinks that the plans now being pushed will necessarily mean wholesale change. Tony Cox, science and technology counsellor at the British Embassy in Tokyo, says that many Japanese academics dislike industry. He thinks that the initiatives now being undertaken are tiny and that the idea of bigger financial rewards for academics who get involved in industrial work is far-fetched. The merger of Monbusho and the STA will, he thinks, produce an even more conservative research climate than Japan has already. "On paper it looks like a science big bang but it will actually be a whimper," said Dr Cox. "The STA has been the active ingredient, unlike Monbusho, but it is the Monbusho culture that will now prevail."
He is especially sceptical about plans for Japanese research to be regionalised. Japan's 47 prefectures are politically strong and have significant economic powers. And each of them wants to be the next Silicon Valley.
Dr Cox said that the gap between industries and universities is too large at the moment for the regional technology centres that figure in many prefectural plans. He said: "It is hard to get them to affect local industry much because the scientists in these centres tend to do the research they enjoy and then look for applications - there is no demand pull to make them do what industry needs. When they are doing something useful it often overlaps with what firms are doing, since they do most research."
But five hours west of Tokyo by the Shinkansen bullet train, this view would find few takers in Hyogo prefecture, where a significant science city is taking root in rolling hills inland from the small town of Aioi. Its centre is a massive scientific instrument called SPring8, a 1.5-kilometre circumference ring designed to generate massively bright X-rays for experiments in biology, materials science and other subjects.
Hiromichi Kamitsubo, director of SPring8, points out that the Pounds 600 million machine, one of three in the world, is being used as the centrepiece for a much larger regional science development, the Harima Science Garden City. The nearby Himeji Institute of Technology has a centre taking in 400 students a year. The prefecture is building a centre for nuclear cancer therapy. Part of Riken, the Tokyo-based physics and chemistry institute, is moving to the site. And moving research to the area are several firms including Sumitomo Electronics and NEC.
SPring8's odd name comes from its full title of Super Photon Ring, with a power of 8 giga electron volts: this makes it a little more powerful than its main competitors, the Advanced Photon Source near Chicago and the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, in which the United Kingdom is a participant.
All three machines work by trapping electrons in a very accurate circular racetrack path. As their path is bent they give out energy, and as the machines get bigger the light gets more intense. SPring8 is the latest and biggest of a long line of Japanese synchrotron sources. Among exquisite experiments it allows are the exact determination of the position of individual impurity atoms in semiconductor materials and detailed examinations of protein structure. SPring8 could allow pharmaceutical scientists to follow the action of a drug at the molecular level on a particular protein.
Dr Kamitsubo said: "In the 1980s when the need for this machine was becoming evident, scientists in Kansai (the western part of the main island of Japan) asked for it to come here because the region is strong in the life sciences - and too much Japanese science was too near Tokyo."
At that time Monbusho said it could not afford the machine, which has been funded instead by Riken and the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute, whose collaboration has meant negotiations of Ulster-type complexity. It opened last year and already has a hefty but all-Japanese user community, 70 per cent of its from universities.
Dr Kamitsubo points out that SPring8 is already in big demand, with about 200 of the 300 research proposals so far received being accepted. Twenty to 30 of these proposals have been from outside Japan, and he expects the first overseas proposal to be accepted soon, possibly from India. Like all such machines, SPring8 is certain to generate more valid research proposals than it can accommodate, said Dr Kamitsubo, who expects the expert committees that assess the proposals to be kept busy. "We took a decision that access to the machine would be free, even to commercial organisations, provided that they publish their results," he said.
The energy is extracted from the ring along "beam lines" of which there may eventually be up to 61. Riken and JAERI have nine, and five other research groups are building their own, including the protein research institute at Osaka University, and the Himeji Institute of Technology. In addition, two lines are being built by a private-sector research consortium with 13 members companies.
Osamu Shimomura of the SPring8 experimental division delights in showing visitors a startling range of equipment already in use with the machine, including presses capable of putting material under pressures matching that at the centre of the Earth, and hitherto unavailable images it can create. In the future it is possible that the machine will be used to produce diagnoses of human conditions because of its ability to create real-time images of complex systems including body interiors. Angiography, the imaging of blood vessels, and the finding of very small tumours might be among early projects.
As an inter-agency collaboration based far from the Tokyo seat of Japanese power, SPring8 might be a precursor of a new and more effective science system for Japan. But as an experienced player of the Japanese science policy machine Dr Kamitsubo, a veteran Riken administrator, is quick to point out that the money going into it is not going to mean any suffering on the part of Japan's other synchrotron energy users. "Monbusho funds all the other machines," he said, "which means that they will stay open despite the money we are spending here."