Wanted in Japan: Creative Science
Companies begin to foster a freer environment aimed at cultivating fundamental discovery
TSUKUBA, JAPAN — TO be given the freedom to follow his own ideas came as culture shock to Sumio Baba.For years, the Japanese scientist only worked on research topics chosen by his managers inside the central lab of Japan's largest computer company, NEC. And most of those topics were based on breakthroughs made by scientists in the West. "I had some new ideas, but the boss did not accept them," Dr. Baba says. "Japanese people find it easier to accept the ideas of foreign scientists." Secretly, he harbored novel but untested theories on how electrons might flow through new types of molecular compounds to make a better computer chip, free of defects. Only in his spare time was he able to conduct "under the table" research, privately pursuing his own ideas. But earlier this year, NEC opened a new type of laboratory in Japan, one devoted to "fundamental" research, unlike the usual "applied" research lab in which Japanese engineers work under intense time pressure to spin out the latest small innovations before competitors do. Baba was invited to join the new NEC laboratory, a five-story building in Tsukuba, Japan's "science city" located about 50 miles northeast of Tokyo. Once set free to test his theories, he soon made a mark for himself among his international peers. "I was able to see my subject from many new points of view," he says. NEC's Fundamental Research Laboratory, like similar ones that have opened in recent years at a few other Japanese companies, is designed to provide a free atmosphere for scientists and engineers to follow broad themes of research with long-term horizons. They have been dubbed the "gold collar workers." "In the normal Japanese corporate lab, you would first specify the technology and the market need, and then go into the basic research," says Dr. Masashi Mizuta, a senior manager of applied materials at NEC. "But here we create a culture of creativity, and then look for a rationale to fund the research. The rationale must be persuasive to management, and this forces researchers to be creative." Taking a cue from United States corporations, NEC and others have encouraged researchers to bring their under-the-table explorations up onto the workbench. For over a decade, Japan has tried to find the secret to Western scientific creativity, having built its commercial success in technology on the basic discoveries of others. It wants to nurture its own Newtons and Einsteins, rather than follow the the advances of Western science like sea gulls behind a fishing boat. "For the big creations, the Japanese are not good," says professor Toshihiro Kanai of Kobe University. Part of Japan's concern is that a new "techno-nationalism" is choking off foreign access to US labs. Top officials are asking how new ideas arise in science, and how to challenge their researchers to be original thinkers, not just tinkerers of imported ideas. "Sometimes a dream will disappear in the group research done in Japan," says Dr. Hiroshi Suzuki of Mitsubishi Electric Corporation. Having caught up with or surpassed the West in most technologies, Japanese researchers are being asked to explore the impossible and find new technologies that will keep Japan a world leader. NEC has one group of mainly PhDs doing "exploratory research." "Japan has become rich and we now have room for funding basic research," says Dr. Akira Kira of the government-run Institute of Physical and Chemical Research. "All we need to find is one or two scientific geniuses. We are creating the environment, and now are just waiting for the inspiration." But so far, the government and universities have seen an actual decline in spending on fundamental science, while the biggest boost has been in private corporate labs. Many now devote close to 1 percent of revenues to basic research, says Dr. Fujio Niwa, who studies such trends at the National Institute of Science and Technology Policy. "It is reaching a critical mass only now." The big companies are doing research and development (R&D) with a 10-year time span, says Marvin Minsky, professor of artificial intelligence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., and an adviser to Toshiba Corporation. "No American management wants R&D with more than five years." As might be expected, the corporations are getting an assist from government. For instance, the Japan Productivity Center, a government agency, makes sure that directors of the new-style labs share management tips with each other and also corrals them into overseas trips to pick up ideas from foreign labs on how to foster creativity. "We still have had many trials in management of research," says Niwa. Most companies now allow researchers to spend time with university professors (mainly foreign) or to publish their results in scientific journals, bringing on a boom in citations of Japanese papers by Western scientists. While the researchers are loosely judged by their bosses for their output of patents, papers, and new technology, "they have to find topics for themselves," says Dr. Fujio Saito, a NEC vice president for research, "Nobody can manage creative research." The new labs are designed for synergy - for free discussion and to bring disciplines together, a cultural breakthrough in Japan, says Niwa. At NEC's lab, six "communication rooms" with soft chairs, free drinks, and blackboards are available for those spontaneous, casual chats that might spark a new direction in thought. At Hitachi's Advanced Research Lab, researchers are told not to take phone calls in the morning to help improve their creative concentration. And they are treated as individuals, not as a group. The labs are assigned to them, not a research topic. When the company holds recreational outings for employees, which are considered almost obligatory rituals, researchers are not required to go. Still, says Hitachi researcher Masatoshi Matsuda, it's difficult to predict if any Japanese corporation can ever make a breakthrough discovery in science. "Management is still not ready to open whole new areas," he says. "Only one or two researchers at Hitachi have come close to breaking the boundaries of science." As one measure of Japan's research success, it is beating the United States in the number of patents filed. But says Niwa, "The US still produces the most powerful patents." Many Japanese firms are setting up R&D labs in the US and Europe, hoping to maintain access to Western ideas in case their own researchers fail. "Japan is searching for a scientific gold mine," says Dr. Saito. "In the West, creativity is highly regarded as almost a work of God," he adds. "In Japan, we don't have any theory like that. We still have to come up with a principle of our own to have creative science. "Western science is strong in conceptual thinking. Japanese scientists prefer to handle material things. Western scientists are like hunters, pursuing a target of knowledge, while the Japanese is more like a farmer, working patiently for the fruits," Saito says. "If we intend to change Japanese science to Western style, then it will be impossible. We can try to change ourselves, but it will be like trying to make a Christian out of a Buddhist. The differences are too big."