RIKEN offers one of the most rich and advanced environments in the world for scientific research. In addition to providing high-quality, high-performance equipment and world-class experimental facilities, RIKEN also grants its laboratory heads a level of autonomy that is unique among international research organizations. It is in bringing together an advanced research infrastructure with this unique respect for research independence that RIKEN creates an environment highly conducive to the pursuit of cutting-edge research.
In the following subsections, we outline this research environment in terms of its three core elements: firstly, the autonomy granted to chief scientists to manage their research laboratories; secondly, the resources and equipment made available to individual scientists and laboratories to fulfill their research objectives; and thirdly, RIKEN's shared-use research infrastructure, including some of the most sophisticated large-scale facilities for pure science research in the world.
One of the most decisive turning points in RIKEN's history occurred only years after it was founded in 1917, with the appointment of its third president, Masatoshi Okochi (see Distinguished Figures), in 1921. Established as an institute for physical and chemistry research, RIKEN's power structure in its early years reflected this research orientation, allocating decision-making power to its top-level physics and chemistry division heads. Okochi completely transformed this arrangement, abolishing the Physics and Chemistry Divisions and devolving decision-making authority to the chief scientists of individual research labs.
Okochi's reorganization of RIKEN was nothing less than revolutionary, ushering in a radically different system for organizing research that has survived to this day. In the new system, each independent laboratory is led by a Chief Scientist who is given considerable autonomy to manage research topics, personnel and budget. When a Chief Scientist retires, their lab closes down. Thus for a single generation researchers are able to devote their full energy to research with considerable scientific freedom; when the time comes for one generation to give way to the next, a new Chief Scientist is appointed and the path of research moves in a different direction.
The institutional system of laboratory-centered research autonomy at RIKEN was compared by former president Minoru Oda to an amoeba, growing and changing shape as it ventures into new areas of science and sets out to explore the unknown. The free atmosphere that the system encourages is what inspired former Nobel prize-winner Shinichiro Tomonaga to describe RIKEN as a "paradise for scientists". For international scientists considering a future at RIKEN, this history of research autonomy serves as a powerful guarantee of the freedom they will be granted, as the head of a research lab, in pursuing their research objectives.
Independence is important, but of course a carpenter also needs tools to do their job. As Hantaro Nagaoka, the first director of RIKEN's physics division, used to say: "Number one is researchers, number two is researchers, number three is researchers, and number four is equipment." RIKEN's long list of world-class scientists only underscores the need for significant and sustained investment in equipment and resources, to maintain and support their ongoing research activities.
RIKEN has met this demand with an array of technological resources and support personnel. At the level of the individual laboratory, RIKEN offers its research staff the environment necessary to carry their work efficiently and effectively. Aside from specific operating funds at the discretion of laboratory heads, labs also have access to well-staffed onsite service laboratories, sophisticated equipment, as well as administrative support and advising. As an international institution, RIKEN strives to create an open environment for all its researchers, and thus these support services are in general available in English as well as in Japanese.
Specific resources made available to laboratory heads vary according to the position of the researcher and differ between research centers and institutes. A Chief Scientist at the RIKEN Wako Institute, for example, is given between 300 and 400 square meters of space to set up their laboratory, whereas Associate Chief Scientists and Initiative Research Scientists are given roughly 150 square meters of space. Team leaders at the Brain Science Institute (BSI) and Advanced Science Institute (ASI) are given 240 square meters of space. (For specific details, please contact the research center in question.)
In RIKEN's early years, before it had secured its position as an international organization for pure science research, government funding for large-scale projects was hard to come by. The government's science policy favored the "big projects" of atomic energy and space exploration, and placed RIKEN on the sidelines. During these years, RIKEN's approach thus tended to focus on doing more with less, centering on creative "small science" projects requiring minimal investment in infrastructure.
This situation has changed as RIKEN has developed a world-class reputation for its inventions and breakthroughs, attracting increased investment for a growing number of large-scale projects. The research infrastructure at RIKEN today offers some of the world's most high-quality, high-performance equipment for experiments across all fields of science. This equipment includes both high-profile common-use facilities for "big science" projects as well as less highly-visible, yet equally vital, equipment for small-scale projects.
In the former category, two of RIKEN's large-scale facilities have been designated by the government's Council for Science and Technology Policy under the title of "key technology of national importance" as deserving of major investment. The first of these, the X-ray Free Electron Laser (XFEL) under construction at the Spring-8 site in Harima, will be the first X-ray laser in the world, serving as a powerful tool in the study of protein structure and exploration of elementary particles. The second is the Next-Generation Supercomputer, a general-purpose computer with a performance of 10 petaflops to be used by academic, industrial, and governmental bodies for everything from basic research to commercial applications.
RIKEN's research infrastructure includes many other large-scale facilities. In the area of structural genomics, the Yokohama Institute offers researchers the largest NMR facilities in the world, as well as the world's highest accuracy SNP typing system. The Center for Developmental Biology (CDB) offers its laboratories an array of imaging, histology, genomics, and molecular biology equipment, as well as one of Japan's most technologically advanced mouse facilities, and equipment for DNA sequencing, gene expression analysis and high-throughput gene sequencing. In the area of high-energy physics, the SPring-8 synchrotron radiation facility (mentioned above) delivers the most powerful synchrotron radiation currently available anywhere in the world. RIKEN's Radioisotope Beam Facility (RIBF) generates radioisotope (RI) beams of all nuclides up to uranium; used together with a new superconducting radioisotope beam separator, RIBF opens the door to a realm of research on unstable nuclei never before attainable.
This advanced research infrastructure, spread across RIKEN's many institutes and centers, provides a powerful stimulus for pursuing new, unexplored areas of science. With this environment in place, researchers are granted a unique opportunity to stretch the boundaries of scientific knowledge and make their mark in their respective fields of research.