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Looking outwards

Image: World Intellectual Property Organization [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr

The international director of Japan's Riken network is pushing an era of collaboration with Europe

For much of her professional life, Yuko Harayama has been an outsider looking in, as a Japanese national studying and working in Europe and the United States. Now, as the newly appointed director for international affairs at Japan’s largest conductor of basic and applied science—the Riken network of research centres—she is on the inside looking out.

Harayama (pictured) studied in France and then Switzerland, gaining an undergraduate degree in mathematics and doctorates in education and economics. After a series of increasingly senior academic jobs in Europe, the US and Japan, she became deputy director of science, technology and industry at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in France. Before taking up her role at Riken on 1 April, Harayama advised Japan’s government on science for seven years.

Moving around like this, she gained a much more intimate knowledge of Europe than most Japanese researchers ever do.

“Being outside Japan, I recognised that the presence of the Japanese community was really quite limited,” she says.

This is something she wants to change. She has her eyes peeled for opportunities to develop Riken’s relationship with the EU as well as regions where it has few ties, such as Africa. “Our researchers are well known in their fields, but you need to go beyond sectors and specialties to have a more comprehensive way to work together with the outside world,” she says.

Having helped evaluate the EU’s 2007-13 research programme, Harayama is well positioned to help Riken kindle more collaborations in Europe. She is not facing the challenge alone: the network opened its first European office in Brussels in November 2018, after setting up a Beijing office in 2010 and a Singapore base in 2006.

But boosting international ties might also require a shift in mindset. Collaboration should start by building on existing connections, Harayama says, but only a “limited number” of Japanese researchers participate in EU calls to which they have access.

While until recently the government had focused on developing ties with its Asian neighbours, it is now seeking to forge stronger links further afield, Harayama says. And the heads of Japanese research institutions are being asked to take the initiative more.

One way in which she is pushing Riken’s researchers to open up is by trying to get them to pay more attention to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. “As a researcher, you need to have a broader view of what you’re doing. It’s not just for you—you’re contributing to science and the world,” she explains.

Attracting researchers from abroad

Harayama hopes to grow Riken’s cohort of international researchers and says her network is more accommodating than many Japanese universities, which tend to have scarce information in English and a culture that can be difficult for foreigners to navigate.

In 2017, Riken launched a Hakubi fellowship for international researchers who wish to set up a unit at the network. It particularly seeks proposals “intended to resolve urgent issues that humankind faces”. About 37 per cent of the network’s researchers hail from abroad, with 60 per cent of that portion coming from other parts of Asia or the Middle East.

Harayama says Riken’s research will “need much more funding” in coming years and that its president Hiroshi Matsumoto is supportive of the effort to strengthen ties globally. But Riken is subject to “more constraints” than institutions elsewhere or even similar institutions in Japan, according to Harayama. There are annual checks and it must present multi-year plans to the ministry of education.

In any case, Riken’s collaboration will have to move forward through fibre-optic cables and screens until the Covid-19 pandemic wanes. “Today it’s almost not possible to go abroad,” Harayama acknowledges, adding: “We have to explore online possibilities.”

Harayama shares a view held by many that digital collaboration is a poor substitute for in-person exchange. Once lockdown
is relaxed, she is looking forward to travelling again, both to get inside Riken’s centres and to start looking outside them for international collaborators. 

This article also appeared in Research Europe