CHAPTER 3

REVIEW OF TECHNOLOGIES

OVERVIEW

JKTC projects can be divided into two broad categories: physical sciences 1 and biotechnology. An attempt is made to cover all technical areas of the JKTC projects, but the panel was only able to visit a small number of ongoing projects. We will give examples of projects and provide a general view of what was observed. A fuller description of the projects covered below can be found in the site reports in Appendix C, and a short description of all JKTC projects is presented in Appendix D2.

All the projects visited were performing high caliber research. The staff was very competent and committed to achieving their research goals. The technical staff members were mostly at the Masters degree level, with many working on their industrial PhDs. Many researchers in the physical sciences or engineering projects admitted that this was their only way of obtaining a PhD short of leaving their company. This was less of an inducement in the biotechnology projects, since there appeared to be more PhDs working there.

Another novel aspect of JKTC projects is that they are created for a specific time, and then the research team and the laboratories are dismembered leaving only a shell company that lives off patent royalties and licensing of technologies developed by the company. Team members go back to their parent institutions and the equipment is sold to create a source of funding for keeping the shell company in business. The government is expected to regain its investment by in essence selling its shares in the companies to the private sector. To date the Japanese government has not had a significant repayment of its investment. This is in part due to the long term nature of investing in research and its inherent high risk.

The experience of the staff members and the effect on their careers has not been documented, but it does appear to be attractive experience from the point of view of the staff and the companies involved. An attempt to study the careers of past researchers working on JKTC projects might provide interesting data and possibly support for the investment made by the Japanese government.

The close collaboration between government and industry found in Japan differs from the more typical arms-length relationship between these sectors. The established time for the projects affects the type and style of the research, something that was observed in another Japanese program, called ERATO, which was studied by a previous WTEC panel (Gamota et al. 1996). Although funding is assured in the JKTC program, there is much more pressure to achieve a result since the end date is predetermined. In the United States the funding might not be as secure, usually the team and the research do not have a finite lifetime. As an example, although most funding for NSF science or engineering centers is also for 5 years, the projects can and usually do continue even if the NSF funding is not renewed.

The WTEC panel found that the quality of JKTC-funded researchers was quite high, and there appeared to be no lack of applicants to fill the ranks of staff in each project. Few university professors have participated in JKTC projects. We were told that in part this was due to the barriers set up between various Japanese government agencies. All faculty and students are under the Ministry of Education, Science, Sports, and Culture (Monbusho). To leave a position in the university was seen as damaging to a career, particularly if one wanted to go back to the university. We did encounter some post-docs in the JKTC projects, but they were foreigners. Some projects had industry-university partnerships, but it was not clear how they cooperated other then to meet occasionally and discuss results. We saw no such cooperation as one sees at the NSF science or engineering centers, or even as in the ERATO program, where some of the ERATO project directors have been university professors.

International participation varied between the projects. At ATR, there appeared to be many foreign researchers. The WTEC team members also learned that the Mixed Reality Systems Laboratory (MRSL) project (see Appendix C) collaborates with the MIT Media Lab, and U.S. students come to Japan to participate in the project. However, in most other projects there were no foreign researchers evident. Most project researchers took part in international meetings and made many presentations, and many published in English language journals, but the panel observed few foreigners among the staff.

Given the broad definition of physical science projects, these projects outnumber the biotechnology ones by a 3 or 4 to 1 ratio. For example, in 1985 there were 2 biotechnology projects out of 17 started. In 1995 one biotechnology project was started, among a total of 4 newly started projects. The physical sciences projects have always included a number of communications related projects, as well as electronics and materials. This emphasis follows the interests of the parent Japanese government sponsors, MPT and MITI. Additionally, due to the origins of the JKTC program, NTT and CRL were always heavily involved in all aspects of the selection and management of the program. 1 By physical sciences we use a very broad definition which means all areas in science and engineering other than biotechnology. 2 For an in-depth discussion of the individual projects, we refer the reader to the English copy of the Research Results of Investment Projects booklet published by the Japanese Key Technology Center (JKTC nd).


Published: September 1999; WTEC Hyper-Librarian