Because a project director has such extraordinary influence over the project, the selection of project directors is one of ERATO management's most important functions. The selection process is highly unusual for research funding programs. Basically, JRDC officials hunt down appropriate candidates whom they then invite to lead a project. The JRDC and the prospective project director then jointly decide on a research theme, a total reversal of typical research-grant procedure in which the investigator must submit a lengthy grant application, which is then evaluated through a merit review process. The process for selecting topics and project directors involve the following steps, as depicted in Figure 3.3.

process chart
Fig. 3.3. Designation process of ERATO's project leader and research field.

  1. Throughout the year, JRDC staff members attend conferences and meetings in a variety of fields to gather information about prospective directors. They consult a wide range of knowledgeable people in each field, including researchers who have participated in past ERATO projects. They also interview hundreds of promising young researchers, usually at the post-doctorate level. In these interviews, the researchers are asked, "Who are the people for whom you would like to work for five years?" Through these efforts a list of about 100 likely candidates is compiled.
  2. This initial list is then narrowed down by the ERATO staff to about fifteen to twenty candidates through contacts with the candidates themselves, their colleagues, and young postdoctorates. Genya Chiba says that the JRDC looks for two basic qualities when scouting prospective project directors: scientific and technological vision and leadership. Since a primary aim of the program is to plant the seeds for future research ideas in the minds of budding young researchers, the project directors chosen must not only be involved in interesting, leading-edge work, but must also be charismatic and capable of attracting younger people to their team.
  3. The 15-20 prospective project directors are visited and interviewed by the manager of ERATO's Research Management Group and a young, technically trained administrator from that group who will be responsible for liaison between ERATO and the project. This is the first formal contact between ERATO and the prospective project directors. In these interviews, ERATO seeks to confirm two points within the context of discussing prospective research: (1) that the prospective director likes the ERATO system and is willing to work with it and, most importantly, and (2) if the prospective project director is attractive to younger scientists.
  4. Brief written proposals are invited from perhaps ten of these, and five or six candidates are invited to JRDC headquarters for more in-depth discussions. Finally, four candidates are selected for ERATO's budget proposal to STA. These steps are completed by June, about sixteen months before the projects will actually start. If ERATO's budget proposal containing the four new projects is approved by STA, by the Ministry of Finance, and finally by the National Diet, the projects undergo a final review and approval by the JRDC Research and Development Council the following May and June. If they receive approval, the new projects commence the next October.

The more recently selected project directors are fairly young, between 35 and 45, so that there will not be too great a generation gap with the young researchers. Most of the directors this panel interviewed were astute, dynamic, often charismatic individuals, and all were well versed in English. This is a must if one is to recruit, maintain, and direct an internationally-oriented team of researchers.

In general, the project topics or fields must be focused on leading-edge, fundamental science so Japan can collaborate internationally. They must involve high-risk, "blue sky" research but have significant potential applications as well, because ties with industry are crucial. Other important considerations are avoiding overlap with other agencies and weighing the chances of getting approval from the Science and Technology Agency (STA) and the Ministry of Finance (MOF). To date, most of the projects have been focused on basic aspects of the biological and physical sciences. Surprisingly, no projects have focused on computer and information science or on social, behavioral, and economic sciences. When asked why this is so, ERATO officials explained that, in Japan, these fields are considered "softer" science and consequently, more difficult to directly link to industry interests. This view appears to be changing as Japan's interest and presence in the software industry grows.

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Published: September 1996; WTEC Hyper-Librarian