Like the Exploratory Research for Advanced Technology (ERATO) program, the Precursory Research for Embryonic Science and Technology (PRESTO) program is a social experiment by the Japanese government to see whether it is possible, given sufficient opportunities, abundant financial support, and technological resources, to stimulate resourceful individual researchers to explore new areas of science and technology on Japanese soil.
The significance of this undertaking must be viewed in the context of the traditional Japanese research environment. As has been mentioned in previous sections of this report, young Japanese researchers in universities and in national research institutes (Kokken), and in many respects company research institutes, have never had opportunities to explore new and innovative ideas of their own unless these were directly in line with the overall research goals of superiors or parent organizations. Research funding in Japan is directly and tightly controlled and very much limited depending upon the interests of superiors. It is well known in the Koza system of the universities, that anyone under the rank of jokyoju (associate professor) is essentially a serf to his kyoju (professor). It has been practically impossible to convince a kyoju or a shitsucho (principal researcher) to divert some of the research funds to pursue projects originated by the research staff. This is especially true since the total research support that a professor receives from the Ministry of Education (Monbusho) for basic research is also limited. The situation has been acute in the bioscience area, and it is the reason why many talented Japanese researchers are found in overseas laboratories like the National Institutes of Health and the Scripps Oceanographic Laboratory in the United States, or at universities like Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. In fact, many PRESTO researchers are returnees from these foreign research institutions.
Similar situations may have arisen in the United States, given the current decline of research freedom resulting from the general shortage of research funds, however the degree of freedom and opportunity and financial support that the U.S. researchers enjoy is vastly superior to Japan's. Clearly there is a larger quantity of innovative basic research coming out of U.S. universities and national laboratories than from the Japanese universities and Kokken. Many senior officials of the Science and Technology Agency (STA), especially the senior officials of the Research Development Corporation of Japan (JRDC), like Mr. Genya Chiba, who have worked in U.S. laboratories, have long recognized the Japanese problems and have been examining ways to change the traditional methods of supporting Japanese basic research.
In addition, the senior management of JRDC wanted to change the commonly held notion of "Japan's technology free ride," the reputation Japanese company researchers have of taking advantage of U.S. generated ideas and/or technology for quick commercialization. By talking to young researchers, JRDC has recognized that many innovative ideas remain buried in Japan because its suffocating academic and research structure obstructs the germination of these new ideas. JRDC management wanted to show the world that Japan can contribute new ideas.