Thursday, December 04, 2008

It's deja vu all over again in "Physics a decade ago"

Although for some reason they call themselves "Physics Today", this is clearly a retread of an article from over a decade ago:

Japan aims to internationalize its science enterprise - Physics Today December 2008

Some choice excerpts:
In a bid to attract both global recognition and foreign scientists, last year Japan launched the World Premier International Research Center Initiative, or WPI. For 10 years, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) will pour ¥ 7 billion (roughly $70 million) annually into five new interdisciplinary institutes in cosmology, materials science, nanoscience, immunology, and the interface of cells and materials.

The WPI institutes are supposed to have about 30% foreigners among their researchers. That, says Okaya, "is bizarre for Japanese. The WPI is revolutionary. It's innovative and very flamboyant."

The other WPI institutes are the Immunology Frontier Research Center at Osaka University, the Advanced Institute for Materials Research at Tohoku University, and the Institute for Integrated Cell–Material Sciences at Kyoto University. All five have different formats, and interactions with their host institutions vary. The common features, which were in part set by MEXT, include using the MEXT funding for salaries and start-up funds, aiming for a total of about 200 people per institute, setting a minimum number of non-Japanese members, and raising additional funds from other sources. Host institutions are expected to provide buildings and other resources. IPMU, for example, is getting a new building and two positions from the University of Tokyo. The MEXT money may be extended to a total of 15 years.

English is the lingua franca at the WPI institutes. And, to attract people to them, the seniority-based pay scale typical in Japanese universities has been turned on its head. For example, says Okaya, the director of IPMU earns more than the president of the University of Tokyo. More broadly, salaries at the institute are higher than professors typically earn in Japan, says Murayama. "We pay better to compensate for people [from Japanese universities] losing their pension plans" and to attract foreign scientists.

"To my pleasant surprise, people in their thirties gave up tenured jobs" to come to IPMU, says Murayama. "Because this place cannot offer tenure, the hardest generation to get is in the forties and fifties. Thirties is easier—they are ambitious, they think this is a place they can concentrate on research for 10 years and then go wherever they want. The forties and fifties think ahead, and might be worried about finding another good job. In the late fifties it's easier, because in 10 years they will retire anyway."

Sounds like an exciting and novel idea? Allow me to introduce the MEXT-funded Frontier Research Centre for Global Change, which was set up more than a decade ago as a highly internationalised and collaborative institute for research into climate change. It had a substantial number of foreign scientists, English was the lingua franca (it was an explicit requirement of employment when I applied here) and they even interviewed some internationally-recognised scientists for senior positions, although they didn't quite get round to employing them (ignoring the case of Suki Manabe who is clearly regarded as Japanese still even though he took US citizenship years ago).

Of course just as is mentioned in this new article, the short-term nature of our employment system means that no decent mid-career Japanese scientists were prepared to come and work here. Instead they act as part-time managers who turn up about once a month but understandably focus most of their attention on their real jobs elsewhere, and this legacy of absentee management remains to this day. This keeps the institute weak which probably suits all the major domestic rivals (or as the Japanese say, "collaborators") as well as our overlord Jamstec which doesn't really understand, or see it as its mission to get involved in, scientific research (and certainly not climate research). The terms and conditions of employment are still good in parts but have been substantially degraded for many, especially the more junior employees. Now Japanese fluency is explicitly required for any senior positions, the institute has been more-or-less fully absorbed as a domestic Jamstec research centre and the "Let's Internationally" theme has been basically replaced with "Ganbare Nippon". Another fortunate consequence of (and indeed perhaps a major motivation for) the post-doc style term-limited contracts is that the foreigners can be easily sent home (or will leave voluntarily) when they have fulfilled their purpose of raising the profile of these new institutes. Of course there are still some foreign hangers-on here who haven't left yet but our proportion is significantly down on the early years.

I confidently predict the evolution of these new institutes will follow in our path - they have even re-used the "Frontier Research Centre" name (which incidentally we are losing next year as part of our ultimate absorption) for one of them!

Back to the closing paragraph of the article:
Mark Vagins is in his early forties, but he jumped at the offer to move to IPMU. He'd been shuttling back and forth between the Super­Kamiokande neutrino detector in Japan and a soft-money position at UC Irvine for years. "I have long believed that discoveries tend to get made where fields collide. It's very unusual to have pure math people interact with people who build experiments," says Vagins, who hopes to increase Super­Kamiokande's sensitivity by adding gadolinium salt to the water to make neutrons visible in a project called GADZOOKS! (gadolinium antineutrino detector zealously outperforming old kamiokande, super!). "My guess," he adds, "is if we achieve the success we are expected to, we'll be funded. It's our mission to make it so they can't pull the plug on us in 15 years."
Good luck with that. The sticking-out nail is liable to get hammered down even when that nail is a whole research institute.

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