With recent revelations of misconduct involving its research on so-called STAP cells, stem cell researcher Haruko Obokata and her employer, Riken Institute, have come under intense scrutiny and criticism.
Last week, the nation’s largest science research institute announced an “action plan” to avoid similar scandals from recurring. It remained vague on whether STAP cells really exist, as claimed by Obokata, despite the recent retractions of two STAP papers authored by a team of researchers led by her that claimed to have discovered a new kind of cell that could grow into any type of tissue in the body.
Although the government-backed institute has a track record of producing Nobel Prize-winning researchers, it now faces massive pressure to clean up its act and regain the trust of officials and the public alike.
When was Riken established and why?
Riken was founded in 1917 in Toshima Ward, Tokyo, initially as a private research foundation, by industrialist and entrepreneur Eiichi Shibusawa.
Shibusawa felt it was necessary for Japan to have an institution solely for science, when the world was moving away from mechanical industries. Shibusawa, sometimes called the “father of Japanese capitalism,” also established the First National Bank (the predecessor of today’s Mizuho Bank) and the Tokyo Stock Exchange.
“To turn the country from imitation (of overseas knowledge) to creative power, there is no choice but to promote research on pure physics and chemistry, and for this we must establish an institute of physical and chemical research,” Shibusawa said.
Prior to Riken’s establishment, Germany established the Kaiser Wilhelm Society. The United States had the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research and the Carnegie Institution, and France had the Institut Pasteur.
Shibusawa and a few others felt Japan should create a research institute of its own that could compete with the rest of the world in science research.
Riken’s headquarters relocated in 1967 from Tokyo to Wako, Saitama Prefecture, and satellite institutions were placed around the country, each focusing on specific fields of research.
It also has centers in England, Singapore, China and the United States.
What is Riken’s relationship with the government?
When it first opened, Riken did not receive any funding from the government. However, in 2003, at the same time Nobel laureate Ryoji Noyori assumed the presidency of Riken, it was reorganized as an independent administrative institution under the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.
The institution now gets 94 percent of its budget, which stood at approximately ¥90 billion in fiscal 2012, from the government.
How big is Riken?
Riken has more than 3,000 employees working at a number of facilities throughout Japan. They are either permanent or fixed-term research or administrative staff members. There are 2,862 researchers and 535 administrative staffers.
Of the researchers, 337 are non-Japanese, and 48 of them hold the top-ranking research posts called principal investigators. When part-time researchers and students are included, the number of non-Japanese researchers climbs to 636. Those from China make up the biggest group, at 141, followed by South Koreans at 88. Researchers also hail from the United States, India and several European countries.
Riken currently has more than 10 satellite institutions across the country, including in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture; Sendai; Nagoya; Harima, Hyogo Prefecture; Yokohama and Kobe.
Kobe is home to the Center for Developmental Biology, where the controversial STAP cells were claimed to have been produced by Obokata, and where Yoshiki Sasai, her mentor and co-author of the STAP cell papers, committed suicide on Aug. 5.
Where does Riken get its funding?
Some ¥84.7 billion of Riken’s budget is derived from government grants, which pay for its general operations and facility maintenance. Riken also generates some money through nongovernmental grants and through collaboration with industries or from royalties.
Who are some of the famous scientists that belonged to Riken in the past?
Many remarkably talented people have emerged from Riken, including Nobel laureates Hideki Yukawa, Shinichiro Tomonaga, and Umetaro Suzuki.
Yukawa, the first Japanese to be awarded the Nobel Prize in physics, assumed that force is carried by particles, while fellow physicist Tomonaga was influential in the development of quantum electrodynamics. Suzuki, a chemist, discovered thiamine (vitamin B1) in rice bran in 1910.
Researcher Katsumi Takahashi successfully extracted vitamin A from fish-liver oil in 1924.
In 1938, Riken Eiyo Yakuhin Co. was established to industrialize some of the institute’s achievements, and it produced the first vitamin A sold in Japan.
More recently, Susumu Tonegawa became famous for his research in brain science and received the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine in 1987. The institute’s Masayo Takahashi is currently leading the first iPS cell-based clinical study on patients.
How has the STAP cell scandal affected Riken’s reputation?
Tomoya Matsushima, press officer at Riken, said the institution is taking the scandal to heart “very seriously,” as such misconduct “absolutely should not happen.”
“We are aware that it is something that shakes the trust of the scientific community remarkably,” he stressed.
He said the institution will do its best to regain trust toward Riken and the scientific community as a whole, by taking “preventive measures that are effective, and building an environment in which researchers can feel at ease carrying on their research activities.”
To improve the situation, Riken announced last Wednesday that it will implement a series of measures aimed at raising the quality of research at the CDB and prevent misconduct among researchers, including downsizing the center by half and replacing its top director, Masatoshi Takeichi. Riken is also considering the replacement of other senior officials.
What is the future outlook?
“Riken has a pioneering role to take on, regarding innovative science and technology,” Matsushima said.
“The institution has to be an existence that is ‘irreplaceable’ in future society. For that to happen, trust is indispensable. We need to build up bonds of trust within society and within the scientific community.”
Riken’s future remains murky for now, however, and its longtime desire to have its status upgraded to receive even more government funding is up in the air. The science ministry had been planning to introduce a bill to create such special-status research organizations this fall, with Riken being a top candidate for the government designation. But minister Hakubun Shimomura told a news conference on Friday that in light of the STAP scandal, the government has given up its plan to submit the bill in the upcoming Diet session.
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