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Hiroshi Matsumoto

Hiroshi Matsumoto

Dennis Normile

New RIKEN president hopes to hold on to young stars

Seven weeks into his presidency of RIKEN, Hiroshi Matsumoto at a press conference on Friday outlined his strategy for restoring luster to the scandal-tarnished network of national laboratories. His big new idea: introducing a tenure track system that would retain the best young researchers now on temporary contracts at RIKEN.

Matsumoto’s overriding task is to help RIKEN recover from last year’s debacle. A high-profile paper reporting a new way of creating stem cells, dubbed stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP), proved bogus after a series of investigations. The fiasco led to the suicide of a senior scientist and the restructuring of RIKEN’s Center for Developmental Biology.

A specialist in magnetic fields and space plasma, Matsumoto had spent his entire career at Kyoto University and served as its president from 2008 to 2014. Since taking the helm at RIKEN on 1 April, Matsumoto has visited all of RIKEN's 15 major facilities, meeting leaders and young researchers to listen to their concerns. He presented his "Initiative for Scientific Excellence" on 22 May here at the RIKEN headquarters near Tokyo.

His most ambitious goal is the tenure system. He noted that most of RIKEN's younger researchers are on fixed-term assignments that typically run 5 years. This has skewed research toward short-term results, as scientists burnish resumes for their next job hunt. Hopping from one short-term appointment to another, he said, "creates a very difficult situation for young researchers."

A related problem, Matsumoto said, is that few young Japanese researchers are gaining overseas experience, because "they worry they won't be able to find a post when they return." He intends to create formal exchange programs, perhaps with counterparts like the Max Planck Society of Germany, to send young Japanese abroad and bring in more foreign researchers who could circulate in Japan to build collaborations and make RIKEN a more important player globally. He said he will push RIKEN scientists and administrators to routinely use English. And he hopes to address other long-standing bureaucratic barriers by allowing research funds to carry over from one budget year to the next and making it easy for labs to hire technicians. "Our researchers are very busy but their support staff is very limited," he said.

These initiatives will take time. Introducing tenure, for example, "will be very difficult," he said, because it will require new personnel practices. One constraint is money: RIKEN’s 2015 budget is set. Matsumoto said he will flesh out specifics of his reforms in next year's budget, which starts in April 2016.