Translated by Dr. Keiko Hikino
Last year, the biggest topic in the field of biomedical science in Japan was the STAP cell. The STAP phenomenon itself turned out to be an illusion, and the circumstances surrounding the large disappointment after the huge expectation for STAP cell biology seem to be somewhat settled. However, there still remain other factors that have not been adequately clarified, such as the reasons why procedures to check the experimental processes did not work well, who replaced the ES cells, etc.
Young researchers have no place to go
Though the media focused on just one highly publicized and controversial set of events, it is important to think about the circumstances leading up to these events much more deeply. We can cut to the heart of the issues, which are related to fostering young researchers. In this article, I would like to discuss issues relating to fostering young scientists, focusing on the education system for producing researchers at academic laboratories and the circumstances where the number of postdoctoral fellows far outnumbers the potential jobs available at this time.
Before addressing these topics, I would like to comment a bit about how RIKEN — the laboratory where the problem arose — tackled the STAP problem. The chairman of the investigative committee at RIKEN went all the way back to the press conference room after the interview, and added, “It is absurd to validate scientific evidence under a security camera.” However, it is highly likely that the prized cells had been introduced into the experimental environment, which amounts to a criminal act obviously outside the reach of science. So, it is a separate issue from the scientific validation of the research.
The debacle also revealed the huge gap between common understandings among researchers and the wider society. This included attitudes of the RIKEN executives when the issue was first discovered and announced with great fanfare, who later said irresponsibly that they would leave the investigation and validation of evidence up to third parties. We must question how the research institute handled this issue.
In terms of the issues related to young researchers, we cannot avoid mentioning a program carried out by the former Ministry of Education, Culture and Science in the late 1990’s to increase the number of postdoctoral fellows to 10,000. Designed to be a five year plan, this project rapidly increased the enrollment in doctoral courses and created an excess of doctoral degree holders. It is extremely important to focus on basic research in order to create a scientific foundation for the future of the country, but unfortunately, this plan lacked the long-term vision to see all of its consequences. The most obvious flaw in the program was that it did not include expanding the education system for researchers or create a job market for these new doctoral degree holders. This produced social distortion where a lot of young researchers could not find their way into stable research jobs after graduation.
At the same time, while the number of labs across the country did increase, the number of workers at each laboratory decreased tremendously. The ministry’s philosophy mandated more labs, as they believed “Great scientific outcomes that lead to Nobel prizes would be made when researchers are young, therefore it would be desirable for young researchers to be independent.” Therefore, the number of professors increased as a result of the laboratories being split into smaller administrative units and the overall research activity at the laboratories decreased.
How our nation is educating our valuable human capital
However, just as great players are not necessarily to be great coaches, great researchers are not necessarily to be great mentors. The Ministry’s program lacked a plan to create excellent educators or mentors, as the policy was designed only towards gaining prizes for young researchers. The idea of “how to increase the nation’s human capital through education” has been studied. However, it has not yet been accomplished.
After graduating school and not finding steady employment, getting a PhD turned into isolation in an employment ice age for many graduate students. Instead of doing research with significant goals in mind, the purpose became to get the doctoral degree itself. This is why successful researchers who could offer jobs or support getting grants using their name recognition or personal connection in the future and laboratories where students could get their doctoral degrees without difficulty became popular among students. Consequently, in the latter case, many of the PhDs who were produced were unprepared for the rigors of high quality research. Even though the Ministry of Education encouraged the massive production of PhDs, they did not discuss how to prepare high quality students. Those discussions should have been more thorough.
Since 2000, the issue of the difficulty finding work has been simmering for these PhDs. When this issue eventually became obvious, universities and public research institutes created some positions, such as special-appointment teachers or researchers under a fixed-term system. However, this also has its limitations. In the US, many new bio-venture companies have been formed, which offered good jobs, but a system like this is not functioning at all in Japan.
Not for their own kudos but for society
Young researchers were exposed to the social expectation that they must show results of their research, fearing the loss of their current positions after a few years. In addition, an objective and productive evaluation system has not been established in Japan. Without an impartial and objective evaluation system, even mid-level researchers are pressured to simply obey what their supervisor tells them to do if they want to maintain employment. In this circumstance, it is extremely difficult to sit down and do solid, unfettered, research.
Clearly, young researchers are in a difficult position. However, I cannot excuse the fraudulent actions that occurred around the “STAP phenomenon.” Just as theft is not allowed just because one is poor, we cannot justify fraud because of a challenging work environment.
Good surgeons (Doctor X) cannot be produced by learning from bad surgeons. Great doctors or researchers can only be produced by learning from doctors or researchers who have strong guiding principles. Unless we are educating leaders who can become excellent mentors or supervisors, leaders in the next generation cannot be generated. It is necessary to educate researchers and educators who have minds dedicated towards improving our society, not towards pursuing their own kudos. Starting from scratch, it is urgently needed to formulate national strategies that can be become national policies, such as establishing a system to enhance human capital, creating a long-term support system for researchers, implementing fiscal policies to incentivize local industries, and other strategies with long term goals in mind.