No matter what country people live in, they often decry the bureaucracy of government and wish for a better system. That is certainly the case here in Japan as well.
People from other countries are often struck by how different the system is run compared to their own countries, and yet there is much in common with bureaucracies everywhere - the "red tape", the "turf battles" between different agencies, bureaucrats more interested in justifying and protecting their own jobs than in serving the people, etc.
Likewise, bureaucracies everywhere find it easy to establish a program to meet some need (real or invented), but then to find it very hard to dismantle or revamp the system because of all of the vested interests involved. As is the case with so many other aspects of Japanese culture and society that are essentially the same as elsewhere "only more so", this aspect of rigid bureaucracy also seems to be "only more so" in Japan than elsewhere.
The first point to keep in mind when trying to understand the bureaucratic aspects of Tsukuba's research institutes is that they fall under several different governmental agencies or ministries. With the exception of a few institutes, such as the Japan Automobile Research Institute, that are categorized as "Public Service Corporations", the approximately 50 government research and educational institutes fall under the jurisdiction of one of seven ministries or agencies. The bureaucracy of an "agency" is somewhat different from a "ministry", as the heads of ministries ("ministers") are politicians appointed to the post by the prime minister, while the heads of agencies are regular bureaucrats who have worked their way up through the system (though, of course, politics certainly plays a part in their choosing as well).
There are two governmental agencies represented in Tsukuba, the Science and Technology Agency ("Kagaku Gijutsucho" or "Kagicho" for short), and the Environmental Agency ("Kankyocho"), and 5 ministries, the Ministry of Education ("Monbusho"), the Ministry of Health and Welfare ("Koseisho"), the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries ("Norin Suisansho"), the Ministry of International Trade and Industry ("Tsusho Sangyosho" or "Tsusansho" for short), the Ministry of Transport ("Unyusho"), the Ministry of Construction ("Kensetsusho") and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs ("Gaimusho").
The reasons why certain institutes are under the jurisdiction of certain ministries sometimes seems rather arbitrary, such as the 3 institutes having to do with weather research being under the Ministry of Transport (because the atmosphere "transports" our weather?) or the National Laboratory for High Energy Physics being under the Ministry of Education, instead of something dealing more specifically with science, such as the "STA" (Science and Technology Agency). No doubt there are historical reasons for these enigmas, but where an institute is affiliated does have a significant effect on the quality of research being done, through varying degrees of flexibility in personnel hiring and funding procedures.
Most foreign researchers working in government run institutes in Tsukuba come in one of three categories: those associated with "AIST" (the Agency of Industrial Science and Technology, also often referred to by its Japanese equivalent of "Kogiin") under the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), those coming under the auspices of "JISTEC" (the Japan International Science & Technology Exchange Center), which is under the STA, or with "KEK", the initials of the Japanese version of the National Laboratory for High Energy Physics ("Ko Enerugi Kenkyujo"), which is what it commonly goes by. With all of these abbreviations, it does take awhile to learn the local jargon and keep them straight ­p;­p; especially when even in English conversation, one sometimes hears them being referred to by both their Japanese abbreviated names as well as their English acronyms.
In this introductory article, we will only make a few general observations, and deal with some of the more substantive issues in future articles, as we get more feedback from those involved. The two aspects of bureaucracy that have the most direct influence on research are who is hired to do the research and the funding they have to work with. In both of these areas, there have been major problems that, according to one long-term foreign researcher, have only gradually been improved.
Funding, for instance, is generally quite inflexible. Creative funding for projects through sharing of budgets across ministry lines is in most cases jealously guarded against. About the only exception to this is research grants from STA for basic research projects carried out by researchers in non-STA institutes. STA is newer and less rigid than its older, more conservative counterparts, and being under the Prime Minister's Office, it is able to relate more creatively to other ministries and agencies.
Another aspect of funding is that it has tended to be based more on seniority and personal relations (usually alma mater style) than on the real merits of a particular project. Recently, however, funding has become more competitive and transparent, thus meaning that project proposals have to be defended and reviewed, which leads to the better research getting more funding and the less worthy being gradually squeezed out.
There still, however, is a great deal of waste, most graphically symbolized by the mad rush at the end of a fiscal year to spend everything in the budget so that one's budget won't be cut the following year. Money from one year's budget can't be held over until the next year to be combined with new money for some project, and thus expensive equipment is often bought that ends up being greatly underutilized and taking up space. One often sees the results of a similar policy in highway construction and repair, with the flurry of activity in March to use up everything in the budget before the fiscal year runs out.
The hiring of research personnel has also been a problem area, as it has in the past been based almost solely on the university one graduates from (with Tokyo University, of course, being by far the most important) and the scores one gets on national tests (kind of an "entrance exam" to the research institutes). More flexibility has been introduced in recent years, but previously, institutes had almost no control over who they hired. Those who were good at cramming for and getting good marks on exams ­p;­p; irrespective of whether they showed promise as a creative researcher ­p;­p; had to be given priority over anyone else. Likewise, positions generally are not advertised, but are filled through an "O.B." (Old Boy) system, and thus very often, the best people cannot be hired. Our source in an AIST institute said that things have improved in the last few years so that now, only a majority of new personnel have to be based on the national exam, and the institute is free to find other personnel elsewhere.
Another aspect of the personnel problem is that of the very low ratio of technical staff to professional staff. Technicians have traditionally had a very low status, and relations between scientists and technical staff have often been poor. The result of this is that there generally are few technicians around to maintain equipment and do routine analysis, etc., so that researchers are burdened with having to do much more of that than would be the case in western laboratories. The same is true in universities, where grad students generally have to act as technicians for their professors instead of being turned loose on some creative line of work. This was the main reason, says Nobel Prize winner Susumu Tonegawa, that he left Japan to do his research in the United States.
All of these factors put a considerable drag on what in many other ways is a strong scientific enterprise in Japan. This bureaucratic drag is gradually being reduced, to the benefit of science, but there is still a long way to go.
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