Chapter 4

ERATO PROJECT ANALYSIS
(PHYSICAL SCIENCES)

John Rowell

OVERVIEW

As described earlier, the Exploratory Research for Advanced Technology (ERATO) projects, as created by the Research Development Corporation of Japan (JRDC), represent an unusual way to fund research, unique in this panel's experience. But has the unusual method of funding resulted in unusual or novel science?

The unusual features of the mode of funding are as follows: The project director receives five years of funding for a team of fifteen to twenty people. The director has to create the team from scratch, drawing his personnel from universities, industry, and government laboratories. The team is generally divided into three groups, which can work at geographically dispersed sites. Often, laboratory and office space has to be found for the project in locations which are unfamiliar to most of the project members. During the five-year project, a director has considerable freedom to pursue the broadly defined area of research and is not required to give frequent reports and reviews. No renewal is possible, so the scientists can concentrate on their research to the end and do not have to prepare a renewal proposal. Some of the staff, however, often do have to search for jobs during the last year of the project. Above all, fundamental long-term research is encouraged, without any constraints as far as the JTEC panel could tell, to have the work in strategically important research fields.

While many U.S. scientists would view some aspects of ERATO funding with envy, in particular the high level of funding guaranteed for five years and the minimal requirements for reporting to the funding agency, the unusual features of ERATO funding do impose some constraints. For example, a well-established university group of similar size would have much more continuity in personnel, in space, in equipment, and in the research topics themselves. Ideas from one graduate student or postdoctorate researcher might flourish in the hands of a subsequent student. In an ERATO project, once the first year has been spent establishing the project personnel in their laboratory space, and the last year is taken somewhat by job searches, research work has to be started, carried out, and finished in three or four years. It has to be largely self-contained in that time span. Thus there can be little evolution of the project, at most one change of emphasis or one chance to follow a new direction that might be uncovered. In some cases the work has continued at a reduced level after the end of the project, either in the laboratory of the director or picked up by industry, but the message was strong that the projects truly end with the fifth year.

The well-defined lifetime of the projects might also have an effect on the choice of topics and style of research. Although there is remarkably little formal pressure to succeed, i.e., no specific measures of performance and success, the directors and staff naturally want to show impressive results within the project's lifetime. Therefore, projects that have some chance of being completed in about four years are chosen. This five-year limit might explain the observation that a number of the projects have been on more applied topics than the freedom of choice associated with the funding itself might have required. How strongly JRDC itself influences the scientific emphasis of the program, through its choices of directors and topics, also is not clear.

The projects in the physical sciences that have been supported to date by JRDC under ERATO funding fall, very roughly speaking, into four broad areas: materials growth, the properties of small physical structures, probes to create or study such small structures, and high-speed devices. Viewed in this way, the projects are as follows (dates given are the final year of each five-year project):

Materials Growth

Small Structures

Probes for Small Structure Creation and Analysis

High-Speed Devices

Given the considerable freedom that can be exercised by both the project directors and JRDC to choose topics of study, one might ask whether these projects represent a cross-section of the most exciting and important research in the physical sciences worldwide over the past fourteen years. However, it should also be noted that it has not been the intent of JRDC to cover all such fields. In fact JRDC indicated that certain popular and "hot" fields were avoided, presuming that such areas would be well funded from other sources. Given that objective, it is perhaps surprising to see the number of ERATO projects that have been focused on the physics of semiconducting materials, a field which receives more research and development funds across academic and industrial laboratories worldwide than any other.

ERATO funding is also designed to encourage work that is long-term and fundamental. Given this enlightened policy, it is reasonable to ask whether the topics have been as aggressively forward-looking as possible. Some projects were speculative and long-term, but others have probably been more "applied" than might have been expected. This panel has speculated earlier that the four-year working life, out of the five years of the project's funding, might be a factor governing such choices.

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Published: September 1996; WTEC Hyper-Librarian