Thousands of researchers at Japanese institutes and universities could be out of a job by next spring, an unintended consequence of a labor law passed a decade ago that gave permanent employment to researchers who had worked on fixed-term contracts for more than 10 years. Japan’s scientific system has many such temporary workers, but instead of hiring them fully, institutions terminate their employment.
Scientists try to prevent cuts; the union of RIKEN, Japan’s network of nationally supported laboratories, filed a protest with the Tokyo labor board last month and may take legal action. Regardless of the outcome, the dispute could cause further upheaval in a research system whose global impact is already waning. “We are on the verge of seeing a possible mass layoff of researchers this year,” Tomoko Tamura, a member of the upper house of the legislature, said during parliamentary questions on the matter in May. Tamura’s analysis of government data suggests that up to 4,500 researchers are at risk, which “could have a serious long-term impact on Japan’s research and development,” she said.
R&D funding in Japan grew rapidly in the 1990s and 2000s, but many newly recruited researchers were hired on fixed-term contracts that offered lower pay, fewer benefits, and less job security in compared to permanent jobs. The scheme gave more flexibility to research institutions, but in practice most fixed-term contracts were renewed indefinitely.
RIKEN is a prime example. Thirty years ago, it had about 400 researchers, most of them permanent employees, working on basic physics and chemistry at the main campus near Tokyo. In the mid-1990s, Japan undertook to roughly double government spending on research within 5 years, but the National Personnel Authority opposed the increase in the number of national government employees. Instead, RIKEN used project funds to hire many fixed-term employees. Today, RIKEN has programs in brain science, quantum computing, and preventive medicine spread across 10 branches and campuses, and operates a powerful synchrotron and five-scale supercomputer. But 77% of its 2,893 current researchers are temporary contract workers.
Legislation passed in 2013 and amended in 2014 gave most contract workers the right to request permanent employment after working for the same employer for 5 years; for researchers, the term was set at 10 years. Many employers responded by ensuring that contract workers never accrued this length of service.
RIKEN took this step in 2016 by specifying that the number of years of service begins in 2013. This means that contract researchers who have already worked for RIKEN for more than 10 years may face termination next year . In an email to Science, RIKEN says 203 fixed-term researchers will reach the end of their final contracts before the end of March 2023. The institute is currently vetting them and expects to make an unspecified number of permanent employees, but many will have to leave. Among the vulnerable scientists are 42 team leaders whose groups will be disbanded if they go, putting a further 177 positions at risk. RIKEN says it hopes those forced to leave “will be able to continue their research activities at universities, research institutes and private companies in Japan and abroad.”
Applying an employment policy passed in 2016 retroactively to those who have already worked under contract for 10 years or more is “illegal,” said Yasuyuki Kanai, president of the RIKEN union’s executive committee. He says researchers are entitled to continued work. Dissatisfied with the way RIKEN was conducting negotiations, the union on June 20 formally asked the government’s Labor Relations Board to order the agency to bargain in good faith. With the unions’ support, “investigators are now preparing to take the matter to court,” says Kanai. The union notes that new cohorts of several dozen tenure-track researchers annually will reach term in the coming years.
Other institutions face similar problems, although few have as many temporary contracts as RIKEN. Some are trying to find ways to retain their workers. The National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology has converted to permanent status all 245 fixed-term contractors who applied for it, according to press reports. Tohoku University is reportedly screening 275 tenure-track researchers for possible permanent employment. At the University of Tokyo, which has 588 fixed-term employees nearing 10 years of service, some may be moved to new projects, a spokesman said, without elaborating.
The broader problem is a dearth of opportunities for researchers to change jobs in Japan, says Eisuke Enoki, who heads an Osaka-based organization that studies science policy. “The ideal originally envisioned was that academics would become assistant professors after one or two postdocs and get a permanent position if tenure was approved,” he says. But no tenure system has ever been enforced, and there are few permanent positions, even for high-performing team leaders, Enoki says.
A senior scientist at RIKEN, who requested anonymity, agrees. His last contract is expiring and it is “very difficult to find a new position”, he says: “If I get a job in China, Korea or Taiwan, I will move.” The crisis highlights that for young people in Japan, “being a researcher is not an attractive profession,” he adds.