RIKEN president Ryoji Noyori (left) at his resignation press conference. He will be replaced by Hiroshi Matsumoto (right, pictured at a Kyoto University press conference in 2011). Credit: L: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty/R: Kyodo via Newscom

Ryoji Noyori, long-time president of Japan's RIKEN network of basic-research laboratories, has resigned after a year in which the organization was embroiled in controversy over fraudulent stem-cell papers.

The 76-year-old Nobel-prizewinning chemist had headed RIKEN since October 2003, and was in the middle of his third five-year term. At a press conference on 24 March, RIKEN revealed Noyori’s successor as of 1 April: Hiroshi Matsumoto, a former president of Kyoto University and an expert in space plasma physics.

RIKEN, which will celebrate its centenary in 2017, employs more than 2,800 scientists on campuses across Japan, and commanded a 2012 budget of some ¥90 billion (at the time, around US$1.1 billion). In a statement posted on RIKEN's website, Noyori congratulated the institute on several achievements during his presidency, including the discovery of element 113, the establishment of the SACLA X-ray Free Electron Laser and the K supercomputer, and the world’s first clinical trial using induced pluripotent stem cells.

“RIKEN has attracted numerous outstanding scientists from inside and outside Japan, and these people have achieved creative and outstanding results,” he wrote. “These achievements were only possible thanks to cooperation and considerable support from people in many different areas of endeavour.”

Praise and regret

Scientists at RIKEN say that Noyori deserves much credit for the institute's progress. Yoshihide Hayashizaki, director of RIKEN’s Preventive Medicine & Diagnosis Innovation Program, told Nature that he is "tremendously regretful" that Noyori has resigned, and called him “the greatest president in RIKEN’s history”. He credited Noyori with shifting emphasis away from basic research and towards useful innovation.

Noyori implemented a rigorous evaluation system that established the idea of meritocracy in science in Japan, says Susumu Tonegawa, a Nobel-prizewinning immunologist and director of RIKEN's Brain Science Institute in Saitama.

Noyori’s bid to recruit the best scientists from around the world with competitive employment contracts (as opposed to internal hiring and tenure-type arrangements) helped to raise standards at RIKEN and other Japanese research organizations, says science-policy expert Atsushi Sunami, of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.

Piero Carninci, head of the division of genomic technologies at RIKEN’s Center for Life Science Technologies in Yokohama, says that Noyori’s departure is a surprise, and leaves unfinished business — including further moves towards applied research, and an effort to install more international research leaders in RIKEN’s administration.

RIKEN reform

Noyori says that a reorganization of RIKEN, which will go into effect on 1 April, provided an opportunity to step down. In his statement, Noyori also referred to the stem-cell research that had enveloped the organization in controversy; two papers published in Nature in January last year were retracted last July. “Because of a most unfortunate case of research misconduct that has severely tarnished RIKEN’s good reputation, I have had to implement major RIKEN-wide organizational and managerial reform directed at rectifying this situation,” he says.

RIKEN and Japan are moving on from the scandal. Last week, a committee commended Noyori's reform efforts, which aimed to create a research environment focused on preventing fraud. The institute also said that it would not press charges against the lead author of the fraudulent research, Haruko Obokata, who was found guilty of misconduct. It will ask her to return the ¥600,000 that she used to publish the papers.

Sunami does not think that RIKEN will change dramatically. But he worries about whether Matsumoto will be able to match Noyori's passion and his leadership both of the institute and of Japanese science. "Matsumoto certainly believes in reform, but he does not have the same level of leadership as Dr Noyori among the scientific community. So, we have to wait and see how he can lead RIKEN into the new phase of organizational reform,” he says.