Thursday, March 09, 2006

On being a foreign researcher in Japan

A couple of surveys have plopped into my pigeonhole recently, asking for my opinions as a "Foreign Researcher in Japan". Both are fairly official, being organised by the Japan Science and Technology Agency and Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology respectively. The latter is taking place as part of the UNESCO "Careers of Doctorate Holders" project. The accompanying letters talk up their intentions for such things as "expanding opportunities for excellent foreign researchers" and "to start appropriate policies with regard to highly qualified people in order to ensure their careers development all over the world" and "examining measures to enable non-Japanese scientists to ... play a more active role at universities and research institutes in Japan." So I was disappointed by the content of the surveys.

In fact the surveys were both (especially the latter, which is uppermost in my mind) little more than rather tedious data-gathering exercises asking for details of education and every job I have ever had (yes, really). While I can see this being of some interest to bureaucrats around the world, I don't see it addressing the matter of "expanding opportunities" or "ensuring career development" or "playing a more active role", since there was precious little interest in what we thought of our situation here or how these matters could be addressed. Out of about 10 pages on the second survey, there was one multi-choice question on this subject with boxes to tick to indicate degree of satisfaction.

The big elephant in the room that neither of the surveys talked about is the difficulty of getting tenure if you are foreign. Many universities limit all foreigners to short-term contracts as a matter of policy (although not all). At my institute, there is virtually no career development or promotion system at all, that I am aware of (you can move from "post-doc" to "researcher", but not beyond). There are some staff who were appointed to permanent positions as "Group leaders" but apparently no way of contract staff moving to this status. (These aren't actually foreign v Japanese issues. But they matter, and no-one seems to be doing anything about them, despite the fact that the lack of career development for more junior staff was specifically criticised in the very first 5-year assessment of the institute, way back in 2001.)

As a contrast, in NERC labs like where I used to work there is a well-defined promotion system, based on levels of achievement (primarily, but not entirely, published papers and grant income) and your importance to the mission of the institute. Evaluation is performed across (almost) all NERC institutes at the same time by a panel drawn from more senior scientists from the different labs. It's not a perfect system, but at least it exists!

The vast majority of academic visitors to Japan are short-term post-docs, and I guess for them, such issues as tenure and career development aren't a high priority. I would have no hesitation in recommending that such a person come here, and enjoy an interesting time, so long as they are happy to take a year or two treading water in terms of their career. I'm sure that most of them have a great time here and suffer no ill-effects as a result. However, Japan is considering introducing some sort of 10-year visa, aimed at people coming to do a PhD and then spending some time as a post-doc afterwards. Bear in mind that 10 years is not usually enough for someone to even qualify for permanent residency, let alone citizenship (unless you happen to marry a Japanese citizen). So at the end of 10 years, they will be vulnerable to being unceremoniously chucked out, and unless they have been particularly careful and/or lucky, they might find it hard to find a decent job anywhere else. 10 years as a graduate/postdoc (which potentially means slave labour in any culture) with no chance of tenure sounds like a recipe for disaster to me.

Well, that's my opinion. If they didn't want it, they shouldn't have asked :-)


Anonymous said...

Our institution failed to accomodate a foreign researcher, probably because of the reason you mention.

It was the year when we moved to Yokohama. A foreign researcher was hired by NASDA for FRSGC. He was on leave from an institution in his home country where he had a (probably permanent) position. He had got Ph.D. in the United States. He studied something, roughly speaking, related to atmospheric data assimilation. He liked to be hired by NASDA and to live in Yokohama.

But, in a few months, his original home institution noticed him that the term of his leave would soon expire. Usually researchers from his country are allowed two-year leave, but it seems that his post-doc experience in the U.S. after accepting the job in his home country had been counted. He needed to choose either one position and abandon another.

I heard from him that he wanted to stay in Japan (at FRSGC), but his family members strongly resisted the idea because it seemed too insecure.

He took a short leave from FRSGC to visit his home country, and has never returned. A month passed after the planned date of his return, and NASDA decided to fire him.

James Annan said...


Jules and I had no hesitation in giving up our tenured positions (which we finally had to do last year). But I can see how people in different situations would find that a difficult decision.

While not everyone can have a permanent position, I hope that the proposed 20-year vision for FRCGC signals some longer-term thinking.