New Career Path Seen for Young Scientists in Japan

From the 9 April issue of Science magazine, page 233.

Four years ago, Japan set out a 5-year plan to create 10,000 postdoctorate positions to provide more opportunities for younger researchers. The government will meet its goal this year, ahead of schedule. That success, however, leads to the next challenge: how to find jobs for these scientists at a time when public payrolls are being reduced.

The answer, according to a government advisory committee, is to loosen up the research tenure system, which traditionally bestows lifetime appointments, by offering fixed-term positions to both "superpostdocs" and more established researchers. In exchange for giving up job security, the researchers would receive greater freedom to explore their ideas. "It would be a new career path for researchers in Japan," says Ken-ichi Arai, director of the University of Tokyo's Institute of Medical Science and a member of the committee, which last week submitted its report to the Science and Technology Agency.

Young scientists typically begin their careers as lecturers or researchers, advance to associate professors or group leaders, and eventually become professors or heads of research departments. Although they have a job for life, they achieve full independence only after reaching the top of the administrative ladder. The committee's recommendations envision an alternative starting point with much more autonomy: superpostdocs for younger researchers who have finished one postdoctorate position and are ready to work on their own.

The committee--which was asked to reconcile the need for more research positions with growing political pressure to help close a budget deficit by reducing the number of public employees--says such flexibility also should extend up the career ladder. It is recommending that fixed-term independent researcher positions be created for senior people capable of directing a team. The committee hopes that these positions, filled through an open competition, will appeal to scientists who want to switch from a traditional career track. The trade-off for this impermanence, says Yuji Kamiya, a plant scientist at the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research (RIKEN) and a member of the committee, would be "more money and more freedom." Those who have completed a superpostdoc or a term as an independent researcher would be free to seek tenured positions at national universities or laboratories.

One model for such an arrangement exists at RIKEN, whose status as an independent research entity gives it greater flexibility than national institutes in personnel matters. Hitoshi Okamoto, a developmental biologist working with zebrafish, gave up a tenured position at the private Keio University for a position at RIKEN's Brain Science Institute. Okamoto says the level of financial support made it "a great chance." And he is confident that his productivity will win him a renewal of his current 5-year term. "I think a lot of Japanese young people would be willing to apply for those positions," he says.

Miho Ohsugi, a postdoc in the oncology department at the University of Tokyo's Institute of Medical Science, says she would be interested in the new career path. "It would be very attractive to be able to work on what you want to work on, even if the position has a limited term," says Ohsugi, who is studying proteins involved in spermatogenesis.

Many details must be worked out before Ohsugi and her peers can apply for a position, however. Ohsugi wonders how a superpostdoc would affect the government's promise to forgive most, if not all, of her graduate school loans if she joins a national university faculty. It's also not clear if superpostdocs would have access to existing equipment. And Okamoto notes that Japan's pension schemes heavily penalize those who change jobs.

There is also the question of how the new positions would be attached to existing institutes and who would pay for them. Arai says institutes would want money to cover the indirect costs of supporting a new researcher. Introducing fixed-term employment at national universities and labs might also require amendments to public servant employment laws.

The committee's recommendations will be passed along to the Council for Science and Technology, the nation's highest science advisory body, which is reviewing the results of a 5-year plan adopted in 1996 to boost the nation's scientific prowess. Any decision on a new career track is likely to be part of a broader set of R&D policies.

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