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Researcher interview #04 | Prof. KERA, Satoshi

July 2020(Prev≪ 1 | 2 )

Reforming the style of research work

Moving on, do you feel that researchers and research groups in Germany are different from those in Japan?

Yes. There are advantages and disadvantages to the German way, of course. The first thing that shocked me was that they go home at 5 pm. At that time, I was working until late at night, but I still couldn't finish my work for the day. I wondered what the difference between them and me was. I noticed that my peers tended to work with a more solid strategy, while in Japanese organizations and society we tend to work with an unclear division of roles. I think the German way has clearer goals and deadlines. Additionally, they may value things other than research. There are many Japanese people who are dedicated only to their work.

Not only in research, you know, Japanese people in general are looking for a better "work style." But what should we actually do about it? Basically, do you think advancing a "work style reform" policy is important?

Because our work style is largely rooted in Japanese culture, I think changing our work style simply by copying what they do aboard would be very difficult. However, I think it is important to try and reform it. The Germans finish their work in the German way. To work on a fixed time schedule with a focus on high efficiency is a reasonable strategy, I think.

Is the Japanese way inefficient?

I can't generally say that the Japanese way is inefficient. Our work tends to be hard and long, but it is worth it. It's very difficult to build something from the ground up. No one knows how long it will take. With the Japanese way, we produce a lot of potentialities from all the work. But no one knows when and which potentiality will become treasure. Since this benefits the way Japan does things, I think, the ideal system would be to find all the potentialities and support them with a long-term perspective on results.

I sometimes hear the phrase "selection and concentration" used in regards to research funding. Is it a bad idea for the future?

We cannot afford to bankrupt the country, so it is necessary to narrow down the targets of research according to the waves of the economy. Even in Germany, due to economic problems, the policy now is to narrow down research targets. However, science and technology do not cost that much relative to the benefits they generate. Even so, it is difficult for the government to make funding decisions if they cannot adequately evaluate research targets. People in MEXT, Japan (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, Japan) say, "Show us the results. We need results to persuade people in the Ministry of Finance to provide money." It's natural from their standpoint. On the other hand, I think it is important for us to gain trust from the general public and to earn their patience and investment.

This leads back to talking about the advantages of Japanese people, which I didn't really touch on. One of our merits is being industrious. When I was working in Germany, I was on a three person team consisting of an Italian, a German, and myself. When my teammates came back from their tea break, I had already finished the next task that we were going to do. They told me it was, "Japanese magic!" Their tea breaks were a little bit long for me, although they were important, of course. I withdrew from breaks early and set about on the next task.

Another of our advantages is having, um, a sense of cooperativeness. In our experiments in Germany, we used a vacuum chamber to deposit organic materials on surfaces to make thin films. However, these organic materials can contaminate the chamber, which was shared with others. When using the chamber for the first time, I was surprised to find the inside of it was very dirty. It may have been because my teammates only cared about finishing their own experiments, or simply because they were bad at cleaning the chamber. They didn't care who would use it after that. I, on the other hand, always made sure to polish up the chamber after I used it. Japanese people like to keep things clean, you know. Although it may be an exaggeration to say the Germans work delicately and boldly, if they think they can get a great result by doing something, they do it even if it will break the equipment after one try. "If you want to see the result, let's do it!" And then they actually do it. I learned a lot from that way of doing things.

I believe that it's not easy to decide to do such a bold experiment exceeding the limitations of the instruments. It's not just because they have a large budget, is it?

They think even if the instrument breaks down, once they get a great result, there will be more money later. It's a positive way of looking at things. I guess it's because of the national character backed by history, or confidence. I think successful researchers in Japan also have the same idea. As a researcher, this is a very important idea that I have acquired, and try to be aware of it now. So, I would like to tell young people not to be afraid to be a little bold.

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Our research environment and mission

You have experienced quite different atmospheres in Japan and in Germany, haven't you? Here, at the Institute for Molecular Science (IMS), how is the research environment and the atmosphere in the laboratory?

The advantage of IMS is the research funding, although it is much less than it used to be. Local universities are in a very serious situation due to budget cuts. At IMS, there is less stress and we can focus on our research peacefully. On the other hand, the disadvantage of IMS is that there are few students in our labs. I think the biggest advantage of local universities is that they have a much larger number of students than at IMS. So, the way of doing research differs between here and there. In labs at a local university, this large number of students allows them to make good use of the "potentialities" that I mentioned earlier, and it is possible to "try" with something that may or may not be fruitful. At IMS, this is difficult, if not impossible, to do because of the lack of manpower. If you want to do it, you will have to get a budget and work with a bunch of researchers. At IMS, I think it will be more of a focused approach to reach a goal.

What can IMS as an Inter-University Research Institute do to help with the pressures being placed on local universities?

My perspective has changed drastically since I became a director at IMS. Up until now, I've focused on my own research and only had a limited view of the people I was involved with, but now I have more time to think about the needs of other people. This has helped to change my perspective. Previously, I had focused on how to contribute to society through my own research. Now I'm also considering how to contribute to research in the whole country. I am currently the director of the UVSOR synchrotron facility, IMS. If I can contribute to improving the research capabilities of Japan by providing access to a large-scale facility like UVSOR to researchers all over the country, I feel I will have fulfilled our role as an Inter-University Research Institute. Additionally, I am now able to support my alma mater, Chiba University, not only through moral support, but also by providing them with concrete help and resources. My mentor, Prof. Ueno, is also doing a lot of work for other researchers all over Japan. I've happily taken on this new responsibility.

In the distant future in a galaxy far, far away...

Changing topics a bit, Japan is an industrially advanced country, but still not a culturally advanced one, I think. There is a huge difference in the cultural environments between Japan and Europe. To become a culturally advanced country in the future, it is important for all of us to raise the level of awareness of the arts and sciences. Technological progress is important, but if citizens don't expand their horizons and evolve, I think humankind will eventually die out. At a get-together with my students, we were discussing our dreams for the future and I asked them, "Do you want to experience a world like Star Wars? Do you think there are extraterrestrials?" I'm sure there are, although there is no observational evidence.

What do you think about this? At least you and I are here, as an example of some kind of life in the universe.

It would be difficult to prove that there are no extraterrestrials. It's just that meeting them is logistically impossible because the distances are vast. Another problem is that I don't think intelligent life forms will ever be able to advance to a level of science and technology that would allow interstellar travel. In my opinion, intelligent life forms will become complacent with the quality of life their technology provides; they'll lose their curiosity and die out before technology evolves to the level of interstellar travel. They could also perish in a war or because of natural disasters before that kind of technology is ever achieved. To survive and continue to evolve, we all need to strive for a "world like Star Wars," for example. To do that, we need to raise the intellectual level of our society.

I think Japan is a country that can do this. For this purpose, I think it is important for researchers to go to junior high schools and high schools and talk about our dreams through outreach activities such as special lectures. Unfortunately, I don't think my research topic can contribute much directly to a "world like Star Wars." Well, if anything, it might be useful in terms of developing materials to get us there some day.

Isn't it enough to maintain the status quo?

If you maintain the status quo, it will definitely worsen you. We need to keep growing, even if it is slow. If you become wealthy to a certain extent and are satisfied with that, you reach a dead end. It is important to keep dreaming. I believe that Japanese manga and anime are making a great contribution to society's dreams and curiosity. If you can't dream it, you can't do it. Progress won't be born out of nothing.

To a world where no one is

So far, we have mainly talked about your research. May I change the subject and ask you about your hobbies and interests?

OK. When I was a student, I remember saying, "I have many hobbies," when introducing myself. I was willing to try anything and everything. Something that I still enjoy is doing outdoor activities. When I was a student, I was a member of an alpine club. We went to places where no one else could go, where the trails were not even maintained; I felt a sense of conquest. I thought, "I'm the only one here now." I don't have the physical strength and spare time for this now, so it has evolved into taking my children camping. Mountaineering developed a lot of my experience as a person, which is still meaningful for me today. The name of the alpine club is the "Walking Tour Club." The name may sound wimpy, but it's an earnest athletic mountaineering club. We took a round trip hike of Iriomote Island on foot. Half of the circumference of Iriomote Island is a jungle with no road. There were no inhabitants, so I had to carry all the food and water -- I carried up to 50 kilograms on my back. In those days, I trained every day to keep in shape. That brings back memories...

Oh, it sounds tough. Expanding on that point, I sometimes wonder why there are experiences that are tough but enable people to grow, and others that are just tough and demotivate people.

I think it depends on whether or not there is a reasonable purpose. Research is very tough, isn't it? If you look at it objectively, it's a pretty tough environment, but it's fun, so we can stay motivated. There is a great feeling when I get data that is exactly what I expected or even when I get data that I could not have predicted. The Walking Tour Club was also tough, but I didn't think to quit because I enjoyed the scenery of the places we reached and the feeling of accomplishment that came from working together with my club members. Even though these experiences are hard, there's a reward.

Basically, if you're always facing difficulty, you'll get sick of it. You mean it's important to have a purpose and a dream for the future and to be connected to that dream?

I think we all had dreams when we were children. But our schools don't nurture those dreams. I think we need to improve the education system. We need more good teachers to guide us, especially in junior and senior high schools. I think science academics and scholars should educate people at earlier educational stages. This could be another career path for those with science doctorates. Fortunately, the number of such people is gradually increasing. Our current outreach activities are rather ad hoc, but people who can really talk about science need to be in the schools as a matter of principle.

Thank you very much for your time.

Translated by Hideki Katayanagi
Photo by Miyuki Harada

Translated from Original (Japanese) Written by Hideki Katayanagi
July 2020

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