Editorial | Published:

Raising the stakes in Japan

Nature Materials volume 3, page 127 (2004) | Download Citation

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Japan's new research system: will it be able to keep supplying the brightest lights? Image: SHUJI NAKAMURA | CHIAKI TSUKUMO/AP

On 30 January 2004, blue-light-emitting-diode inventor Shuji Nakamura became a very rich man, and the Japanese research scene became a very different place. A Tokyo court ordered Nichia Corporation, where Nakamura worked from 1979 to 1999, to pay him 20 billion yen (US$190 million).

The suit involved a production process for the blue LED that Nakamura invented in 1993 using gallium nitride when others were using zinc selenide. His argument hinged on a clause in Japanese law stipulating that industrial researchers who produce patents receive an “adequate” amount of compensation.

Adequate compensation to industrial Japan has historically been a flat rate of about JPY20,000 per patent. Nakamura, who took up a position at the University of California-Santa Barbara in 2000, says he received very modest research budgets and that superiors chided him for pursuing something with little chance of success. According to Nakamura, little pay, little support, and long hours led others to call him a research slave.

The court concluded that Nakamura, despite a “poor research environment”, was almost single-handedly able to produce the revolutionary invention. Nakamura's efforts were appraised at half of the estimated 120 billion yen that the patent could earn before it expired in 2010 — three times the 20 billion that Nakamura sought.

The award, the largest ever in Japan, has awed the country. And it is not a fluke. The decision was a dramatic example of a change of thinking in Japan. The previous record — JPY163 million — was given to an ex-employee of Hitachi only the day before.

The suit will almost certainly inspire researchers to develop their own million-dollar patents. But Japan's research system is entering a new phase, and it is not clear how freely they'll be able to pursue these ambitions.

From April, as part of a nation-wide administrative reform, Japan's universities and research organizations will become independent. The reform is designed to streamline the government by cutting down the number of civil servants. It also aims for more efficient and profitable institutions that are less dependent on handouts from government.

But there remains a good deal of top-down thinking in the government, and some think it could even become more pronounced. The Council for Science and Technology Policy, the country's highest science and technology advisory committee, has taken an unprecedented strong hand in evaluating science and defining priority fields.

Luckily for materials scientists and nanotechnology researchers, these fields compose one of the four science and technology pillars of a newly industrialized state that the government designated in March 2001 (see the Commentary on page 129). Money has since flowed in.

The central government understandably wants to encourage such fields that lead to technological innovation. But the last refuges of basic research are being squeezed. Industrial laboratories have cut back much of their blue-sky research capacity during the prolonged recession, joining hands instead with researchers in universities or academic laboratories.

Universities, preparing for independence and eager to remain solvent, have also started emphasizing the need for their researchers to come up with lucrative patents. Technology licensing or technology transfer offices have sprouted up at most universities.

Researchers in the past were almost guaranteed lifetime employment once they entered the university system. Now many universities are preparing term contracts whose renewal is based on evaluations. And these evaluations are beginning to include patents along with publications.

There is a strong trend towards thinking of science in money terms. Those involved in technology transfer sometimes even mock researchers of the old school who do not want to distract themselves from their research by getting involved with industry.

How will this affect research? It will probably not be clear until at least a year into the reform. But there is concern that forcing researchers to prove themselves in a short-term system could have a stultifying effect on research. This would be especially tragic in a field such as materials science where Japan has always been strong.

Nakamura's perseverance has made him a model for Japan's future. But his discovery did not come by following orders on how to make a quick buck. In fact his previous efforts, by his own admission, produced very little in money terms. He took a chance despite resistance from superiors. The more revolutionary the finding, the riskier the initial decision to proceed with it.

Japan has never been tolerant of failure. It needs a system where researchers can take chances. The system about to be put in place could have the opposite effect. When the various university presidents and science policymakers reorganize the country's science this spring, they need to remember the need for that leeway.

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