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Towards securing time for research for faculty members: CSTI continues its examination


An investigation revealed that the ratio of research time in the working hours of university and other organization staff reduced from 46% to 33% compared to that of 15 years ago, and that securing time to devote is research is a key to reinforcing research capability. The Council for Science, Technology and Innovation (CSTI) started an investigation on how to secure research time from the viewpoint of infrastructure improvement, human support, funding applications, the problem of a sense of futility of applying and evaluating applications for research expenditure, and university management. The results of the investigation will be consecutively reflected in related policymaking including selection criteria for the Government-led 10 trillion yen University Fund, and the Comprehensive Promotion Package for Regional Core and Distinctive Research Universities.

Shared use of research equipment and facilities is important in order to make research activities efficient across entire organizations and for start-ups by young researchers. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) has been offering support since 2016 in order to facilitate the shared use and management of equipment and facilities by universities. Besides this, MEXT is providing diversified support, such as aids for setting up a network that covers multiple universities (since 2007) and for constructing platforms for cutting-edge equipment (since 2016), as well as through establishing platforms for BINDS (Basis for Supporting Innovative Drug Discovery and Life Science Research) (bioscience), nanotechnology platforms (substances and materials), HPCI (High Performance Computing Infrastructure) (computer science) and assistances to centers for shared use/joint research.

On the other hand, an investigation conducted by the Cabinet Office indicated that at 65 universities, 83% of research facilities (or equivalent to over 5 million yen) were not available for shared use and only 10% of them are open for use by outside universities. There were some organizations whose facilities worth 50 million yen or more and less than 100 million yen are actively shared with other entities, but those worth over and above 100 million yen showed a decrease in the ratio of shared use. However, the scope of the investigation involves all research facilities and equipment, including those not suited for shared use and others customized to a specific research objective, and so the investigation can be said to have an issue with accuracy. That being said, it does reflect the trend that shared use is not progressing as well as expected.

There are several reasons for this lack of progress on shared use of equipment. One is that researchers originally do not want to share their equipment because it was purchased using competitive research funds, or otherwise they do not want the equipment broken by being inappropriately handled by others. Moreover, there are no organizational structures that facilitate shared use. Second, even for large equipment purchased using budgets provided by MEXT, they are mainly used by the university community, and the community must pay fees equivalent to actual costs to use it, but it is difficult for them to pay renewal fees and to continue employing staff dedicated to the facilities. According to Takaaki Kajita, President of Science Council of Japan, "Unless the budget for facility maintenance is revived, there is no way to stop the deterioration of the research environment."

For cutting-edge equipment, support from professionals are a must to utilize them. "In BINDS, a researcher who wants to use the facility consults with the supporting organization, which lists up some candidate supporters. Researchers among them who wish to extend support will provide assistance, but in many cases, they are not serious about doing so," pointed out Hiroaki Suga, Executive Member of CSTI (Professor of the University of Tokyo). "When I offered technical support to 10 cases of peptide-related research, it was really hard for me mentally and in terms of time. Regardless of one case or 10, the same amount of budget is not provided, so many supporters do not work full-heartedly." "When we purchase a large facility at around 100 million yen using competitive research funds, the cost of maintaining it becomes a burden. Space is also necessary, and we have to pay those fees, too. In universities in the U.S., facilities are considered assets of the university, and the university pays maintenance and indirect expenses. As a result, the facility is co-used. Nothing will go smoothly with an attitude of, 'I will leave everything to you, but let us use it.'"

Sharing of research data, and research DX for automation of experiments are important for researchers to make their research efficient and to improve their work-life balance. However, it is necessary to improve, make public and save research data, in order for it to be used by many people. For this purpose, the National Institute of Informatics (NII) establishes and offers research data control infrastructures and repositories. As making metadata, a form of data before inputting into systems, and converting data into an appropriate form are undertaken by each laboratory, the reality is that NII is unable to respond to the requirements of each user satisfactorily. What is worse is that disclosing data is not necessarily linked to positive evaluation.

According to an investigation by the National Institute of Science and Technology Policy (NISTEP), in order to manage research data for a university with about 5,000 members requires two librarians, two staff for promoting research and intellectual properties, two for information systems, and two from each faculty for data management and support services. However, a majority of researchers complain that they do not have enough human resources, time or funds to improve and disclose data.

Initiatives for sharing research data are steadily advancing in countries outside Japan. The EU is investing 600 million euros (about 82 billion yen) in establishing the European Open Science Cloud (EOSC). Germany plans to invest 90 million euros (about 12.3 billion yen) every year by 2029 on an initiative for consolidating research data into a common infrastructure.

In order to facilitate data sharing, it is necessary to drastically increase investment and reform systems to ensure data management expenses are appropriately reflected in research expenses.

This article has been translated by JST with permission from The Science News Ltd.( Unauthorized reproduction of the article and photographs is prohibited.

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