On 29 November, the newest office of Japan’s national research institute opened its doors in Brussels, Belgium. The current expansion of Japan’s highest-ranking scientific institute was triggered by stagnant government support for science at home.
Japan has one of the most research-intensive economies in the world and is home to some of the world’s biggest tech companies. However, the economy in Japan has slowed down over the past decade, mainly owing to huge government debts and an ageing population. As a result, university budgets have been falling one per cent each year, according to Hiroshi Matsumoto, Riken’s president since 2015 and an expert in magnetic fields and space plasma.
The 100-year-old research behemoth currently supports 3,000 scientists and has an annual research budget of 95 billion yen (about €736 million). Rikin is home to many world-renowned scientists, with a particular focus on biology and the medical sciences, and publishes over 3000 research papers every year. Rikin is now hoping to stimulate scientific collaboration with Europe in order to maintain its reputation for excellence and to avail of European funding, in particular, the €94.1 billion Horizon Europe R&D programme. The centre, which has another small base at the UK’s Rutherford Appleton physics lab near Oxford, is seeking new partners in Europe, both in universities and within European companies with a special focus on biomedical sciences.
The institute already boasts 300 scientific collaborations around the world and the number of Japanese-European collaborations is slowly increasing, including existing partnerships with Max Planck in Germany, the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission, and the French National Centre for Scientific Research. Researchers from Japan have already been awarded several European Research Council (ERC) grants for projects on a range of technologies, such as 5G, the Internet of Things, big data, high-speed aircraft, the cloud and anti-icing systems.
Horizon 2020, Europe’s flagship scientific funding programme, is one of the biggest draws. Moreover, the European Commission is mutually seeking to stimulate collaborations with wealthy countries, as a way to strengthen European competitiveness in science and technology. The Japanese ambassador to the EU, Kazuo Kodama will meet with EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedaswill on 3 December to discuss future plans.
In addition to new partnerships and funding opportunities, the new base in Brussels will offer young “inward-looking” Japanese scientists the chance to travel to Europe and gain international experience. Furthermore, Rikin is also hoping to boost support for startups in Japan, which is currently the third-largest economy in the world behind the US and China. Despite this, Japan has is lacking in venture capital.
According to Matsumoto, “More than 90 per cent of our [Japanese] companies are small-scale. Each company has been given very little opportunity to interact with each other. They wish to have a platform at Riken and I think this is very necessary for our society.” Another existing initiative ― called the “White Brow” ― awards five-year contracts to young, promising scientists, even those without a doctorate.