The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Commerce commissioned a panel of U.S. experts to study and evaluate two Japanese basic research programs administered by the Research Development Corporation of Japan (JRDC): Exploratory Research for Advanced Technology (ERATO) was started in 1981, and Precursory Research for Embryonic Science and Technology (PRESTO) in 1991.
This study grew out of the U.S. technical community's need to better understand Japanese efforts in promulgating basic research, to see whether the execution of these programs provides any insights for the United States, and to identify opportunities for future U.S. participation or cooperation. This study follows a similar study performed by the Japanese Technology Evaluation Center in 1988.
The panel's principal conclusions are
ERATO's impact on the Japanese scientific infrastructure is quite extraordinary given its modest size of three to four new projects per year, each funded at a level of approximately $3 million (U.S.) per year. Fewer than a thousand researchers divided among forty-five projects have participated or are currently in the program. When it began in 1981, ERATO was quite controversial because its purpose was to try to break long-held traditions dealing with the support and performance of basic research in Japan. The program was designed to support unfettered basic research and to break the traditional hierarchical structure that exists in almost all sectors in Japan. Its sociological results have been quite amazing; ERATO achieved its goals. About 20% of the researchers are from abroad, and ERATO has moved off-shore, with some of the projects being set up in the United States and elsewhere. For each ERATO project, the ERATO administrators choose an emerging researcher who is attractive to young scientists to be project director and ask him to organize an effort along some previously agreed upon line of basic research. He then organizes three research groups, not necessarily located in the same facility or even the same city. Projects begin from the beginning: the project director must find laboratory space and order equipment. He must also put together a team of researchers from industry, national laboratories, universities, and/or foreign organizations. They all must begin to work as a group in a totally new environment and structure. As participants, team members are expected to be loyal to ERATO, not to their parent organization, and get paid by ERATO.
Each project is managed according to the project director's wishes with some rules that apply across all projects. The rules are as follows:
PRESTO is a relatively new program whose impact is still too new to be fully appreciated. It funds three-year projects, in much the same way that individual investigators are funded in the United States. Unlike ERATO, which does not have a formal application process, PRESTO is a formal, very competitive program to which researchers submit peer-reviewed research proposals. Fewer than 8% of the applicants receive funding. Sometimes PRESTO funds have been used to extend certain aspects of research developed under ERATO, but more often, the funds have been used to promote pioneering and embryonic research for the future. Many researchers use PRESTO as a stepping stone to their next positions.
The United States leads the world in basic research and has developed a science and technology infrastructure that is admired by other countries. Japan has been known for its strength in technology and more importantly for its ability to change ideas into viable commercial products. Japan has not been known for its basic research programs. In part, Japan's culture and organizational structure has inhibited scientists' freedom to think along nontraditional lines and to participate in groups of researchers from different organizations and backgrounds. Furthermore, young Japanese scientists are rarely in a position to make important decisions. ERATO was designed to try to break that mold and to help Japan compete in basic research.
The NSF commissioned a study to look at ERATO in 1988. While the 1988 study indicated the research was of high quality, the program itself was still too new to be appreciated fully, and its cultural impact had not yet been seen even in Japan. This present study, however, clearly demonstrates that ERATO has had a very positive impact on Japan, and its success has been felt even on the international scene. Although ERATO was designed to affect Japanese science, its success clearly has demonstrated that there are lessons to be learned even by the United States. No program like ERATO exists in the United States. The unique feature all the projects share is the formation of a team of researchers, drawn from industry, national laboratories, and universities, who work together, get paid by a single organization, and for five years have professional ties only to the funding organization.
To date, JRDC has sponsored forty-five ERATO projects. The projects fall into two general technical categories: biosciences and physical sciences. Twenty-one projects have been completed, some as early as 1986. The JTEC panel's strategy was to sample a number of projects from each scientific area, choosing from among the following categories as well: those completed some time ago, some that are nearly complete or are just being completed, and some that are in the process of being formed. The panel also chose a geographical range for its sample, visiting projects in Tokyo as well as outside the capital. In total the study team had contact with at least half of the forty-five projects and were able to obtain a very good picture of the ERATO program and its impact on the Japanese science community; on the interest of the Japanese industrial community; on government science and technology establishments; and on the international science community.
Designed to nurture young, innovative researchers, PRESTO provides funds and mentors for projects that would be considered risky in more traditional sectors of Japanese science. Although the program is still too new to be evaluated, its potential impact on the Japanese university system for funding science could be enormous: PRESTO researchers have more of the time and resources needed to conduct innovative research than do university scientists operating in more traditional funding modes. Early indications are that the science in PRESTO projects has been impressive. However, there are also some signs that the PRESTO process and mode of funding, which are somewhat similar to U.S. procedures, also have the potential to create a cohort of post-PRESTO researchers who move from project to project without a clear career path to permanent employment.
The most conspicuous difference between ERATO and PRESTO is their structures. While an ERATO project is conducted under the general supervision of the project director in groups headed by a group leader usually at the same site, PRESTO researchers work alone, independently, at a place of their choice. The PRESTO process is similar to that found in the United States, although the application process is much simpler, and there appears to be much less oversight. Funding for an ERATO project is about ¥1.8 billion, or $17 million (U.S.) for five years, while PRESTO projects are funded at ¥30 million, or about $300,000 (U.S.) for a three-year period.