Figure 3.2 illustrates the life cycle of a typical project. As previously mentioned, a unique feature of ERATO is that all projects are time-limited and are automatically finished and dispersed without exception after five years. This policy prevents funded projects from becoming "entrenched bureaucracies," so common to other Japanese research programs. It also fosters considerable personnel mobility and invigorates the system by creating the resources to start three or four new projects every year.
Fig. 3.2. Life cycle of an ERATO project.
However, the fixed project lifetime sometimes results in research and personnel discontinuities. For example, up to a year may be needed to obtain the equipment, facilities, and personnel to actually begin the research project. The typical method of obtaining equipment ensures a long waiting time; i.e., it is roughly sketched out by the researchers and then contracted out to industry to design and construct. Likewise, by the time the project enters its fifth year, the independent researchers are concentrating on closing down the project, publishing papers, and finding suitable employment elsewhere. This leaves about three years for the researchers to do most of the research, adequate time for most research projects but not all. Sometimes a discovery in the third or fourth year will open up an exciting new research direction, which then cannot be pursued.
Several ERATO project directors this panel interviewed were critical of the "five-year rule" and suggested that ERATO should be more flexible. One suggested that ERATO should not start the clock until the research laboratories are fully operational. While the JTEC panelists understand these views, they believe that there are more disadvantages than benefits to changing the current policy.
For one thing, all project directors and staff are made aware of the "five-year rule" early enough to incorporate it into their project, research, and career planning. If the project life cycle were more flexible, project directors would likely find all sorts of reasons for continuing projects, and perhaps would even engage in political lobbying in an effort to win project extensions. Furthermore, having a standard life cycle provides the ERATO program with a regular source of funds with which to start new projects.
As previously mentioned, JRDC has no facilities of its own; thus, research is carried out in rented laboratories, sometimes at several scattered locations. The flexibility may make ending a project easier, but then research equipment, much of it expensive and state-of-the-art, may remain. At the project's end, JRDC retains title to all equipment and dispenses it in a common-sense way. In some cases, equipment is transferred to other ongoing ERATO projects or stored for future use. Sometimes it is left with the former ERATO researchers who may be continuing the same line of research at their home institutions.
The use of independent researchers also may be problematic. Since they quit whatever jobs they had when they joined an ERATO project, they must find employment again when their projects end. In the past, most researchers have found other suitable positions relatively easily, many at universities (mostly at the assistant professor level). This ability to find positions reflected both the high quality of the ERATO researchers themselves and the reputations they built as a result of their participation in the program. However, with the recent spiraling down of Japan's economy, an increasing number of researchers are encountering difficulties in locating positions. Others who have recently joined ERATO projects are quite worried about the prospective job environment. Consistent with Japan's culture, the project director bears a heavy burden in seeing to it that his researchers are well placed.