New RIKEN chief pledges to restore public faith in Japanese lab system

TOKYO—On his first day on the job as the new president of RIKEN, Japan's network of national labs, Hiroshi Matsumoto pledged to follow through on his predecessor's plans for addressing shortcomings that created an environment for research misconduct. "We need to instill high standards of research ethics among individual scientists," he said.

Meeting reporters this evening, Matsumoto briefly outlined other initial priorities, saying he will visit all the widely scattered sites under the RIKEN banner to listen to researchers' concerns and gather information firsthand. At an institutional level, a challenge he faces will be taking advantage of RIKEN's new status as a national research and development institute, which promises more flexibility in managing operations, including the ability to recruit world-class researchers with competitive compensation and support.

Matsumoto is taking over as RIKEN tries to put the STAP scandal behind it. A brash claim of a new, easy way to create stem cells by a RIKEN team unraveled over the past year as a series of investigations concluded there was research misconduct, fraudulent papers (now retracted), lax oversight, and, finally, that the cells never existed. The fallout included the suicide of a renowned scientist who co-authored the papers, the resignation of the lead author, penalties for senior co-authors, a reorganization of the institute involved, and a lot of bad press for RIKEN. Matsumoto said that he intends to rigorously follow through with implementing an action plan developed by a committee advising his predecessor, Nobel laureate Ryoji Noyori, who stepped down in the middle of his third 5-year term. The plan encompasses a collection of countermeasures intended to prevent the recurrence of such misconduct.

An engineer who specialized in space plasma physics, Matsumoto, 72, spent his entire academic career at Kyoto University, save for stints as a visiting researcher at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, in 1975 and at Stanford University in 1980. He was the principal investigator of the Plasma Wave Instrument on the Geotail satellite, a joint mission of Japan's Institute of Space and Astronautical Science and NASA. Launched in 1992, Geotail is still gathering data on Earth's magnetosphere. Matsumoto was president of Kyoto University for a 6-year term that ended last August. He has also served on the government’s Committee on National Space Policy.

At today's press conference, Matsumoto echoed themes from a message posted on RIKEN's website. He wants researchers to recognize that their efforts must benefit the citizens of Japan and worldwide society. "The challenge will be finding the right balance between giving researchers freedom and ensuring contributions to society," he said.