The benefits of having industry employees participate in an ERATO project appeared to vary enormously. In some companies, the employee gave his company little feedback about the research activities of the project. In other cases, the company took participation much more seriously, selecting the employee and the project carefully so both employee and company would benefit. In addition, the level of interaction between the employee and his home company, during his participation in the project, also appeared to vary from minimal to an ongoing discussion.
In a relatively small number of cases, company management was so impressed by the results of the project that they continued part of it, with some matching JRDC funding, in their own laboratory. A more general benefit was access, through the participating employees, to the patents generated by the ERATO project, which in a few cases totaled 30-40. Although it is a basic research program, ERATO (particularly in recent projects) has generated a large number patents as well as publications.
ERATO has also encouraged interactions among scientists from different companies. Scientists from different industrial laboratories were, often for the first time, working together, sometimes in a laboratory that was located in a third company. Surprisingly, this did not seem to create difficulties for the host company, in that proprietary information seemed to be respected by the visitors and generally the visitors were not from directly competing companies.
Comments from companies having ERATO participants were generally positive. A frequent message from industry was that ERATO projects had a very different style of research from industry, where research is carried out by teams that are rather tightly organized. A few quotes illustrating this industry view of the ERATO research style, recollected from notes and memory, are as follows: "A two- or three-year stay [on an ERATO project] is best, otherwise the employee becomes very scientifically oriented." "ERATO is strange, in that it has so little preplanning and control of people and budgets." "ERATO introduced individualism into the research and development culture." "ERATO introduced flexibility, which is good." "I learned a 'do something new' attitude from ERATO." "Team members from universities needed training in the industrial research style." "It gave me experience outside [my company], which has a very conservative style." These quotes indicate that the effects of ERATO's research style were on everyone's mind.
A theme that emerged during this visit, in contrast to the 1988 study, concerns ERATO's role in the support of basic research in industry in Japan. During the period between 1985 and 1990, the robust economy allowed Japanese companies to expand their research programs to include an increasing fraction for basic research. In discussions with high- level managers at NTT, NEC, Hitachi and other companies, the JTEC panel learned that the support for basic research in industry is still seen as very desirable. This is in stark contrast to the United States today. In fact these discussions were reminiscent of the United States in the 1960s and early 1970s. (It was almost a shock to hear the phrase "basic research" used openly in a corporate dining room.) But the downturn in the Japanese economy has caused increasing concern, also expressed in these discussions, that companies will not be able to support that level of basic research without the help of government funding. On a number of occasions, ERATO and other government funding was cited as a way to retain top researchers during these more difficult times and as a way to share the costs of basic research.
Interestingly, no small companies have been created as a result of ERATO projects. This, of course, is not specific to ERATO, as very few companies are created in such a way in Japan. Given the unique nature of ERATO projects, perhaps eventually this will change also.