Institute doomed by loss of interest in basics

Tokyo

Eighteen years ago, it was a shining example of industry-sponsored science in Japan. But the Biomolecular Engineering Research Institute (BERI) in Osaka is to close next year, despite its scientific success.

The institute's plight reflects the wider fate of industry-sponsored science in Japan over the past 20 years. The once bountiful well of private-sector support for basic research has dried up, as grand corporate ambitions have shrunk in more austere and uncertain times.

Founded in 1986 as the Protein Engineering Research Institute, it was funded by the industry ministry and 18 companies. Its mission was to develop basic science that would underpin drug development. It now has an annual budget of ¥1.1 billion (US$10 million) and some 70 researchers.

Over the years BERI, as it became in 1995, has notched up important findings, particularly in the analysis of protein structures such as the glutamate receptor, which plays an important role in the nervous system (N. Kunishima et al. Nature 407, 971–977; 2000). “BERI researchers put out outstanding papers one after the other,” says Shigeyuki Yokoyama, director of the protein group at the Genomic Sciences Center in Yokohama. “They really led Japan in the early days of protein structure analysis.”

But in April, the institute's board of trustees, which includes representatives of the remaining nine companies that provide 30% of BERI's funding, decided to drop their support. Chairman Tadashi Hirata, chief executive of drug company Kyowa Hakko, refused to comment on the reasons for the decision.

“BERI has been very productive,” says Mitsuru Takeshita, head of the biotechnology division in the economic ministry's New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization, which provides the other 70%. “The problem is not whether BERI has been putting out results — which it has. Rather it is an internal organizational problem. The closing is very regrettable.”

The institute's director, Kosuke Morikawa, says that BERI is closing because the gap between scientific discovery and industrial application is too large for sponsors to justify the cost. “From a research perspective we have been extremely successful and we have also trained many of the leaders of industrial science,” says Morikawa. “But the companies have not retained much interest.”

BERI's method of studying proteins one-by-one is also out of step with the move towards industrial-scale approaches such as the Protein 3000 project, Japan's effort to solve the structure of 3,000 molecules. “Groups around the world are finding that a bigger scale is better,” says Yokoyama, whose group is leading the project.

Morikawa says he has courted patrons who might be able to support the institute, but so far has had no success. When he asked Hirata what to do, he says he was told to relaunch BERI as a small business. “I don't have the connections or knowledge to do that,” he points out.

BERI's researchers may struggle to find employment at a time when Japan is trying to introduce more intense competition, with greater emphasis on industrial involvement in basic research (see Nature 429, 207–221; 2004). Judging from the experience of BERI, which Morikawa envisioned as a model for such involvement, it will be a challenge for research institutions to meet these goals.

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Cyranoski, D. Institute doomed by loss of interest in basics. Nature 430, 282 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/430282a

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