Promotion of international brain circulation is essential for robust research and development. To this end, it is important to globalize the research ecosystem, promote international human resource exchange, and ensure that Japan is firmly integrated into the international brain circulation network. Under this special topic, we will introduce the current status and challenges of Japan's research efforts to promote international brain circulation to produce outstanding research results as well as the attractiveness of Japan's research environment, which is the key to attracting foreign researchers, through a series of interviews with relevant people in the field. In this interview, we spoke to Dr. Shigeo Koyasu, President of the National Institutes for Quantum Science and Technology (QST).
Contributing to the realization of a sustainable future society by creating and providing new values through R&D of quantum science
— In April this year, you assumed the position of President. At the same time, a new medium- to long-term plan for the next seven years were launched. Could you share the current status of QST and your areas of focus as president?
QST is a national research and development agency established in 2016 to promote research and development in the fields of quantum science and technology. QST was formed by merging the National Institute of Radiological Science (NIRS) with the Nuclear Fusion R&D Sector, Quantum Beam R&D Sector, and Material Sector of the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA). Former President Toshio Hirano, who led QST during its first term, promoted the development of new science based on 'quantum science,' including the launching of projects that linked and integrated research in various fields, as well as existing research and development efforts. This contributed significantly to the new organization.
I was passed this important baton. Former President Hirano and I have known each other for a long time because we specialize in the same field of immunology. He shared many stories with me about the challenges he had encountered, even before my appointment in QST. I believe that it is my role to tackle the issues encountered by the Former President and connect them to successful results. My goal in the second term is to contribute to the realization of a sustainable future society, where the economy, society and environment can coexist in harmony, by creating new values through research and development in the fields of quantum science and technology, as well as by making the fruits of these efforts available to society.
After taking the position in April, I visited all the domestic centers (Rokkasho, Sendai, Naka, Chiba, Takasaki, Kizu and Harima (Kansai)) and the international center (ITER, France) to inspect research sites and exchange views with many staff members. I was deeply impressed by the fact that these centers harbor many of the world's top-level research infrastructure facilities. In my previous position at RIKEN, my objective was to emulate the Max Planck Institutes in Germany; however, I believe that QST should aim to become more like the Helmholtz-Association, composed of multiple research centers with various large-scale research facilities for promoting research and development. We would like to aim to maximize our research outcomes not only by conducting outstanding scientific research ourselves but also by making our cutting-edge research infrastructure available to researchers worldwide or through collaborations.
As a specific initiative, QST is committed to advancing research and development in the areas of 1) quantum technology innovation research, 2) quantum medicine and medical research, 3) quantum energy research and, 4) quantum beam research, seeking to realize a sustainable future society using quantum science and technology. In the area of quantum innovation, we seek to create innovation using quantum science and technology, centered on the foundational quantum technology research and the quantum life science research. In quantum medicine and medical research, we aim to achieve a healthy and long-lived society using next-generation medical technology.
In quantum energy research, we are dedicated to fusion-energy development for sustainable environmental and energy solutions. In quantum beam research, we seek to develop and advance methods for generating, controlling, and utilizing quantum beams, which form the foundation of the quantum technology field. We will advance the development, utilization, and shared access of QST's top-level research facilities and equipment and promote research and development through collaborations within QST, with domestic universities and other institutions, as well as through international cooperation. In addition, we are committed to fostering human resources that will constitute the next generation of scientists.
An example of top-level quantum science and technology infrastructure is the Heavy Ion Medical Accelerator in Chiba (HIMAC). Cancer treatment using heavy-ion beams of carbon ions, state-of-the-art technology that has successfully been put into use, has attracted attention worldwide and health insurance coverage has expanded to cover multiple types of cancer. The accelerator facility is not only used for medical purposes but also presents a very attractive experimental device for nuclear physics researchers. RIKEN's Radioactive Isotope Beam Factory (RIBF)1 is the world-top-class accelerator for studying unstable nuclei, whereas HIMAC is the world's most advanced accelerator for studying stable nuclei. The accelerator has generated reliable results and has been very popular among physicists. Devices developed for medical purposes have also been popular among these scientists and have significantly contributed to the field of physics. This is an excellent example of 'research outcome maximization,' a strategy that we should adopt as a national research and development agency. QST has many more outstanding research and development infrastructure facilities and equipment of unparalleled quality, and we intend to make the best possible use of these.
At QST, where research in various fields uses quantum science and technology methods, my mission is to maximize research outcomes through this new synergy and provide full support for this purpose. For example, HIMAC is a very large device, measuring 125 meters × 65 meters. The current goal is to develop and demonstrate a so-called 'quantum scalpel' that is downsized to 20 meters × 10 meters, which will make it practical for use in hospital facilities while ensuring better performance. A 'quantum scalpel' accelerator can be downsized by combining the superconducting coil technology developed by the group working in the fusion-energy field with a novel technology (laser acceleration) developed at the research site in Kizu. Currently, carbon is used as an ion source; however, in Chiba, a multi-ion source that can also generate helium and neon ions is being developed. Owing to the synergy within QST organization, I believe that this can be achieved.
Through this, I consider the development and upgrading of research infrastructure, as well as the development of new facilities and equipment, as very critical initiatives in themselves. Particularly in the quantum beam area, I would like to promote research that will be foundational to the fields of quantum science and technology. Both researchers and engineers play very important roles. We will also ensure that engineers are appreciated by appropriate evaluation and support.
Furthermore, in addition to developing existing research, it is essential to create new research fields. Former President Hirano created a completely new field (namely, quantum life sciences) at QST, established the Institute for Quantum Life Science in Chiba area, organized a system for research promotion and founded the Japanese Society for Quantum Life Science. Owing to the participation of many young researchers with diverse backgrounds in various specialized fields, expectations are high for the development of very exciting and attractive research area.
The development and advancement of fundamental technologies, creation of values through synergy, and exploration of new research fields are all essential for maximizing research outcomes. For this purpose, exchanges between different fields are crucial. As holding scientific events during the COVID-19 pandemic was not possible, we finally organized a research exchange meeting for the entire organization in August 2023 after a hiatus of three years. Many researchers attended the meeting and participated in activities such as oral presentations and poster sessions. The participants actively exchanged opinions with respect to incorporating different perspectives into their own research and promoting the advancement of research through collaboration. This has increased our excitement about the future of research at QST.
Although it has only been half a year since I assumed my current position as president, I would like to convey my enthusiasm for QST to all of the staff members. It is necessary to support them into the future by establishing a system that will enable them to excel in their research and maximize the outcomes of their research.
Transmitting technology through infrastructure renewal
The most important aspect of research infrastructure facilities is transmitting technology through the renewal of facilities. The Grand Shrine of Ise has preserved the ancient and excellent skills of shrine carpenters to the present day through the 'Shikinen Sengu,' a ritual of rebuilding the main shrine every 20 years and transferring a symbol of the deity. This was an excellent idea for transmitting skills conceived by people more than 1,000 years ago. A similar mindset is necessary for research infrastructure facilities as well. Many of Japan's large research infrastructure facilities were developed and completed 30 to 40 years ago, and a lack of updates since then has resulted in technology not being passed on.
The tokamak-type experimental ultra-high-temperature plasma generator JT-602 succeeded in generating the first plasma in 1987 and subsequently ceased operation in 2008. The experimental superconducting plasma generator JT-60SA3, which has been under development since then, is scheduled to produce its first plasma in 2023; however, considering that it has already been under development for more than 30 years, the timing of fostering human resources is critical. A similar situation is likely occurring in various large research infrastructure facilities around Japan.
It has been 25 years since the completion of SPring-8, a large synchrotron radiation facility in Harima, Hyogo Prefecture. We have established NanoTerasu4, a three-giga-electron-volt (3GeV)-energy high-brilliance next-generation synchrotron radiation facility, in Sendai and NanoTerasu is scheduled to become operational in FY2024. Technologies related to accelerators, lasers and synchrotron radiation will be inherited, and it will be possible to utilize these technologies when developing and establishing future large synchrotron radiation facilities.
Research facilities are often questioned regarding how they will address aging; however, this does not provide a solution to the essential problem. It is of utmost priority to maintain and improve scientific and technological capabilities by constantly promoting technological development and research and periodically upgrading facilities to achieve the world's highest standards. The decline of Japan's semiconductor technology is an instructive example. We have strongly appealed to the government regarding the necessity of passing on technological knowledge to the next generation, as well as the necessity of performing periodically upgrades of large research facilities, which is essential for this purpose. I hope that they will seriously consider this issue.
Approach toward internationalization of the research environment
— What is your basic idea and approach regarding the internationalization of the research environment?
First of all, I find the term 'internationalization' itself very Japanese. Typically, scientists from all over the world gather and interact with attractive peers and organizations conducting outstanding research and further develop their research. My basic idea is that science has no borders; consequently, internationalization should be a common practice.
However, I feel that significant obstacles still hinder the hosting and supporting foreign researchers when their families come to live in Japan. Some practical issues include providing accessible schools to their children and removing language barriers on an organizational scale. In my previous position at RIKEN, we adopted English as the official language within the institute, with all documents written both in English and Japanese. Nevertheless, it was still quite difficult to enable daily administrative interactions with foreign researchers entirely in English. QST has many documents that are available in Japanese only; thus, it faces similar problems as those faced by RIKEN. The primary language of the government and public agencies in Japan is Japanese, and it is very difficult to convey information contained in the documents formulated in Japanese to foreigners. However, setting these problems aside, science is universal, and the common language used by scientists to communicate is English. Thus, I believe that internationalization should be natural for researchers.
Currently, approximately 1,300 staff members are employed full time at QST. Only approximately 50 of them are foreigners, which is a very small number. More than 20% of the approximately 270 staff members who have been employed at QST over the past seven years as fixed-term postdoctoral fellows and in other roles have been foreigners, and QST has also hosted many other short-term visitors. Although opportunities have become quite limited owing to the COVID-19 pandemic during the past three years, we believe that the situation will improve in the future, as a significant number of foreign researchers are drawn to QST.
— Regarding the outbound flow of people, is there any mechanism to send QST researchers to foreign countries for training or research?
QST serves as the Japan domestic agency in the international joint project ITER, which stands for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor project5, and our staff members are active at the construction site located in Saint-Paul-lès-Durance, France. QST is also promoting Broader Approach (BA) activities in Japan and fostering robust human exchanges. Furthermore, QST is engaged in international activities, such as becoming a core facility in Japan for the IAEA for radiation protection.
In addition, QST established the QST International Research Initiative scheme in FY2017 to support interactions with top-level researchers overseas, with the aim of generating world-leading research outcomes in the fields of quantum science and technology and nurturing young talent who would excel internationally. In FY2020, QST established a communication infrastructure for remote access and began conducting remote experiments from overseas in response to the difficulties associated with international travel owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. Consequently, new research interactions have been deployed. Furthermore, since 2022, when international travel again became feasible, QST has been sending employees to overseas research institutes, universities, and international organizations through an overseas trainee dispatch program to acquire advanced knowledge that will contribute to the research and development in science and technology that is currently undertaken or should be undertaken in the future. This acquired experience will also contribute to the operational management of the organization.
However, international collaborative research necessitates travel and interaction with researchers in foreign countries. Based on my experience, I believe that staying in a foreign country for several years and becoming exposed to its culture, in addition to being engaged in research, are essentially the most important things. I really hope that young scientists will be able to travel abroad, not only for scientific work but also for experiencing different cultures. Especially in the United States of America and Europe, people from various countries live together, and I think that it could be a very valuable opportunity to get to know people from many different nations just by going there.
I spent eight years in the United States of America, and I believe that it was the most significant period in my research career. After returning to Japan, I have consistently encouraged students to go abroad. Many things about foreign countries remain difficult to understand unless actually experienced. In this regard, it is certainly important to have international interactions with different people at QST, but it is also crucial for each individual to go abroad before joining QST to experience various cultures and build connections there. Such networking is extremely important for successful research activities. Unfortunately, it appears that in contemporary Japan, this aspect is not valued very much.
Recently, increasing the number of internationally co-authored papers has been heavily emphasized as an indicator of internationalization; however, the primary goal should not be to write co-authored papers itself. Rather, it is more important to become a sought-after talent at major international conferences. The emphasis should not be on having one's name appear among the list of authors; rather, it is important to be recognized as an essential international researcher. Research results are certainly important, but I believe that it is crucial to get to know and interact with foreign researchers from a young age, building relationships that would enable continuous mutual improvement and future collaborations. In that sense, I hope that researchers will travel abroad to gain experience before taking a long-term position in an organization. In this regard, I strongly encourage universities to send their students and alumni overseas.
The promotion of brain circulation within Japan is also very important. We would be delighted to support the transition of QST staff members to university positions, but we also hope that universities will similarly encourage talented individuals to join research institutes. If universities only invite talented individuals but do not allow them to move out, science and technology as national assets will decline. This is also a cultural issue, and when I was involved in designing the special researcher program at the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS), we introduced a rule enforcing researchers to move from their research laboratories to other places for postdoctoral experience. Initially, we wanted to mandate a university transfer as well, but there were considerable objections that precluded this from materializing. Given the examples from other countries, I believe that it is important to increase the mobility of human resources within Japan.
Generating research outcomes utilizing the world class research facilities and equipment, and attracting excellent talent from around the world
— It has been reported that the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) will establish a system to provide an annual grant of 20 million yen to top professionals and young researchers involved in next-generation artificial intelligence (AI) development and 6 million yen to graduate students starting in FY 2024. Right now, there is worldwide competition for talent, and we are getting to a point where organizations are willing to do whatever it takes to recruit talented individuals.
While providing talented individuals with high compensation is one possible approach, what truly captivates researchers is the prospect of practicing exceptional science in an outstanding environment that cannot be done anywhere else. The situation is akin to catch-22 or the chicken-and-egg dilemma: Where excellent science can be practiced, people will gather, and where excellent people gather, scientific work will excel. I believe that it is our job to create an environment in which excellent science can thrive.
An example of the role of the world's top-level infrastructure equipment in attracting researchers is the JT60SA installed at QST's Naka Fusion Institute. This is a tokamak-type experimental superconducting plasma generator that is being jointly developed by Japan and the European Union (EU). This is a unique device that is expected to generate more powerful plasma than that generated at ITER, which is being installed and developed in France. This is undoubtedly extremely attractive to researchers working in the field of plasma science. I believe that the development of such facilities and equipment significantly attracts talented scientists from all around the world.
The same can be said about NanoTerasu, a 3GeV-energy high-brilliance synchrotron radiation facility that we are establishing now and will maintain for shared-use in Sendai. Certain research and development projects can only be realized using state-of-the-art facilities and equipment; such projects are highly attractive to Japanese, as well as foreign, researchers. The excellent research results generated at these facilities will in turn attract even more researchers and bring in additional talented individuals in a circular manner. QST's research infrastructure facilities and equipment are basically open to external users, and I believe that it is my role to create, maintain and develop such a positive circular environment.
— Do you mean that you aim to actively utilize existing advanced infrastructure and also create new infrastructure, conduct interesting research, promote its attractiveness, and attract talented individuals from outside to create such an environment?
The importance of diversity and outreach
— It may not be directly related to internationalization, but what are your thoughts on issues such as gender balance?
While this is a problem for Japan as a whole, the low percentage of women has been frequently noted at QST. We believe that some necessary steps should be taken to improve this situation. The issue of diversity boils down to asking how we can make the workplace comfortable for all employees, regardless of their gender and nationality. Everyone has slightly different needs, and it is difficult to determine exactly what and how to optimize specifically. However, we would like to listen to as many opinions as possible and work on this issue.
I also have the impression that even though QST is producing outstanding results and promoting noteworthy initiatives, it often remains modest without aggressively appealing to the public. We would like to continue to engage in outreach activities in the future to actively appeal to the public both in Japan and internationally to ensure that QST's research activities are properly assessed.
Robust collaboration with external parties to contribute to the social implementation of research outcomes
— Could you share your thoughts on the commercialization of startups in terms of translating cutting-edge research into social impact?
QST provides a program to support efforts toward societal implementation and startups. For example, QST provides start-up support to researchers who have developed technology to recover only lithium from seawater and waste liquids at the Rokkasho Fusion Institute. There are also researchers who have developed new technologies for refining beryllium, a crucial element for fusion energy, and started their own business. At QST, we provide as much support as possible for such challenges.
However, in my personal opinion, organizations suitable for start-ups are universities and not research institutes. The goal of a researcher at a research institute is to produce research results. While there are expectations about the applicability of these results to society, I do not believe that starting a business should necessarily be the goal of all research activities. Rather, I believe that it is important to find value from a business perspective and contribute through collaborative research activities.
The effectiveness of medications for treating Alzheimer's disease, which has recently become a popular discussion topic, may significantly vary depending on the stage at which these medications are administered to patients. Biomarkers that allow accurate diagnosis of the symptoms are essential, as it was found that medications are effective at an early stage of the disease but become no longer effective after a certain point during disease progression.
The new positron emission tomography (PET) devices and reagents under development at QST are highly regarded for their ability to assess the accumulation sites and amounts of disease-related proteins such as tau, α-synuclein and β-amyloid in various neurological diseases. Although such PET studies may not provide direct treatments, they are crucial for proper diagnostic decisions that guide treatment strategies.
Many pharmaceutical companies have formed consortia to embark on initiatives to use the imaging reagents developed at QST to detect biomarkers for the evaluation of drugs. This exemplifies how QST can significantly contribute to society by collaborating with pharmaceutical consortia rather than engaging in corporate activities on its own, and I believe that this is an area where we can be of significant value.
(Interview conducted at QST's headquarters in Inage, Chiba on August 30)
Interviewer: Yoshihiro Higuchi,
Director for Global Strategic Issues, JST
Editing: Ki Sou,
Editor-in-chief of Keguan Japan, APRC, JST
- 1The radioactive isotope beam factory (RIBF) is a facility that generates unstable nuclei of all elements up to uranium, enabling the study of their properties. RIBF is a unique 'multi-stage' accelerator complex with multiple cyclotrons lined up. The final-stage accelerator, the superconducting ring cyclotron (SRC), is the first, largest and most powerful accelerator in the world, with a total weight of 8,300 tons.
- 2JT-60 is Japan's first tokamak-type nuclear fusion experimental device, operated by the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute (JAERI) since 1985. 'JT' stands for JAERI Tokamak, and '60' stands for the initially planned plasma volume of 60 cubic meters.
- 3JT-60SA is the world's largest superconducting tokamak-type machine for conducting plasma experiments toward the early realization of fusion energy. The equipment, produced in cooperation with Japan and Europe, was assembled at the Naka Fusion Institute. It is approximately 16 meters tall and weighs approximately 2,600 tons.
- 4The next-generation synchrotron radiation facility development center, or NanoTerasu, is a three-giga-electron-volt (3GeV)-energy high-brilliance synchrotron radiation facility constructed and maintained in Sendai as a collaboration of the public and private sectors. It is a shared facility that enables nano-level material observations, characterized by highly brilliant soft X-rays. It is expected to be utilized in diverse fields such as quantum materials, life sciences and drug development.
- 5The international thermonuclear experimental reactor, whose construction was initiated in Saint-Paul-lès-Durance, France, in 2005, is being promoted by the 7 members, including Japan, Europe, the United States of America, Russia, South Korea, China, and India, with the aim of commencing operations in 2025.
President of the National Institutes for Quantum Science and Technology (QST).
Graduated from the Department of Biophysics and Biochemistry, Faculty of Science, the University of Tokyo, in 1978.
Appointed as a researcher of the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Medical Science in 1981.
In 1983, he obtained a Doctor of Science degree.
After holding the positions of a postdoctoral fellow, instructor, assistant professor and associate professor of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at the Harvard Medical School, since 1988, he became a professor at Keio University School of Medicine in 1995.
In 2013, he became Group Director of the Laboratory for Immune Cell Systems at the RIKEN Center for Integrative Medical Sciences (IMS) and Director of IMS in 2014. Since 2015, he has been Executive Director of RIKEN, in charge of research and overseeing a wide range of research activities.
He has been in his current position since April 2023.
National Institutes for Quantum Science and Technology (QST)
QST is committed to research focusing on quantum technology innovation research, quantum medicine/medical research, quantum energy research, and quantum beam research, with the fundamental goal of 'realizing a sustainable future society through quantum science and technology.' QST plays a core role in quantum science and technology research in Japan.
QST homepage: https://www.qst.go.jp/site/qst-english/