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National Research and Development Agency RIKEN

History and Outstanding Features


History and Outstanding Features
RIKEN is a national research and development agency which carries out high level scientific research in a range of fields including physics, engineering, chemistry, biology and medical science. It is the only comprehensive research facility for the natural sciences in Japan, and in the world. RIKEN is staffed by outstanding scientific researchers, who are pioneers in their respective fields. The research they carry out at RIKEN is unrivaled in both quality and scope, and enables RIKEN to fulfill its dual objectives: to generate high-level research findings and to foster superior human resources.

RIKEN spares no effort to ensure appropriate investments are made in core research areas, as well as new areas which have the potential to contribute to the overall improvement of current science and technology standards. RIKEN is also proactive in bringing together different fields into innovative interdisciplinary areas of research. It is vital that the research results produced at RIKEN are effectively transformed into practical applications that can benefit society; to this end, RIKEN research laboratories work towards technology transfer to industry and commerce wherever possible. Any profit generated by such commercial application is used to fund the operation of research laboratories. This cycle allows RIKEN to maintain a high level of independence. 

The history of RIKEN dates back to the end of the Meiji era (1868–1912). In 1913, Eiichi Shibusawa, an internationally renowned entrepreneur, teamed up with Jokichi Takamine and Joji Sakurai to lobby the government to establish a national scientific research institute. In 1917, the three men succeeded in achieving their common goal, when a combination of governmental subsidies and private contributions was used to establish the RIKEN Foundation. The founding principle of the Foundation was to improve standards in science and technology research in Japan. 

At the time, only research was carried out at the RIKEN Foundation, and no consideration was given to the practical application of research achievements to wider society. This all changed in 1924, however: Katsumi Takahashi  was a RIKEN scientist who succeeded in isolating and extracting vitamin A, the first such achievement in the world. The vitamin supplement subsequently began to be manufactured and sold as an extremely popular commercial product. In 1922, another RIKEN scientist, Umetaro Suzuki, developed a synthetic sake, made without rice, which was also commercialized. These successes led the RIKEN Foundation to proactively work towards the practical and commercial application of research findings. The system that developed was a precursor to the industry–academic collaborative programs of today, and allowed the RIKEN Foundation to develop so dramatically. 

Dr. Yoshio Nishina was a scientist who opened a new laboratory in the RIKEN Foundation in 1931, after his return from Europe where he had been studying until 1928. His research into quantum physics, the atomic nucleus and X-rays was unique in Japan at that time, and in 1939 he succeeded in building Japan’s first large-scale cyclotron. Dr. Nishina’s research into particle physics, developed from his experiences within that field in Europe, attracted Japan’s most talented scientists to the RIKEN Foundation. Dr. Hideki Yukawa and Dr. Sinitiro Tomonaga, both of whom were subsequently to become Nobel Laureates, and Dr. Shoichi Sakata, who was responsible for the development of elementary particle theory in Japan, worked in Dr. Nishina’s laboratory at the RIKEN Foundation. In a very real sense, Dr. Nishina’s laboratory was the birthplace of Japan’s tradition of outstanding work in particle physics that continues to this day. 

Dr. Hantaro Nagaoka is another RIKEN-affiliated physicist, who made his mark on the international science world. Dr. Nagaoka is chiefly remembered for his proposal of the Saturnian Model of the atom, and was a contemporary of Nishina at the RIKEN Foundation. Many prominent scientists worked with Dr. Nagaoka at the RIKEN Foundation, including Kotaro Honda, the inventor of KS steel, and Torahiko Terada, who is remembered principally for his work on the observation of crystal X-ray diffraction. 

The RIKEN Foundation has expanded in scale and in scope since its very beginnings, even enduring the difficult period of post-Pacific War occupation. 

Today, the RIKEN Foundation is a world-leader in several fields, including research and development into supercomputers. In the 1980s, Japanese companies were at the forefront of rapid technological development in the supercomputers industry. For a period, the pace of Japanese innovation overtook even that of America, the accepted world-leaders in supercomputer technology. This momentum was soon curbed, however, by a decline in Japan’s previously favorable market, which had supported technological development, and Japan’s supercomputer industry began to fall behind. Japan’s government, however, determined to prop up this flagship technological field, positioned the development and operation of supercomputers as a key technology of national importance, and commissioned RIKEN to lead research and development in the field. In 2006, RIKEN launched its Next-Generation Supercomputer project, which aims to complete a 10-petaflop supercomputer by 2012. 

The Advanced Science Institute at RIKEN is home to interdisciplinary research in the very latest fields, which is a particular characteristic of RIKEN. The Institute is principally concerned with research in the following four fields of innovative research: (1) the Chemical Biology Department, which seeks to fuse chemistry and biology in new and relevant ways; (2) the Emergent Materials Department, which concentrates on the development of new devices using nanoscience grounded in physics and engineering; (3) the Green-forefront Materials Department, which seeks to find solutions to environmental issues through chemistry; and (4) the Extreme Photonics Department, which carries out interdisciplinarily-informed development in electromagnetic wave technology including lasers. 

The Brain Science Institute is headed up by Director Susumu Tonegawa, a Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine. The core principle of the BSI is to approach brain research from an interdisciplinary and synergetic perspective, bringing together talented researchers from diverse fields to advance brain-related research. The BSI adopts a borderless policy both in terms of the disciplines it incorporates into its research and the research staff it recruits to carry out its world-leading work; around 20% of BSI researchers are non-Japanese. The BSI is also proactive in its collaboration with industry, and had forged partnerships with leading companies from diverse industries, including Olympus and Toyota. Generating research findings that can be meaningfully applied to industry is an important goal of the institute. 

The SPring-8 Center is home to the SPring-8 synchrotron radiation facility, which is able to generate synchrotron radiation with world-leading performance. Research at the Center focuses on this radiation, using it to explore physical chemistry, the structural analysis of carbohydrates, and diverse other areas. SPring-8 is available for shared use; any institute or university can apply to make use of the facility alongside RIKEN researchers. This open-door policy has allowed RIKEN to contribute to many pioneering discoveries in many fields. One prominent example is the identification of the pentaquark; experimentation carried out at SPring-8 was an important contributing factor in the development of the pentaquark hypothesis.  

Today, the central role of genetic difference in disease susceptibility has come to be widely recognized. The Center for Genomic Medicine at RIKEN is dedicated to research and development that exploits the achievements of the Human Genome Project, which was completed in 2003 and mapped all genes in human DNA, by applying this new knowledge to the development of treatments for disease. Particularly outstanding among Center achievements thus far is its world-leading success in developing the Genome Wide Association Study (GWAS), a methodology for the comprehensive assessment of genes related to multifactorial disease and drug reactivity. This achievement is being applied to further research into the development of personalized medicine, where the most appropriate treatment can be selected on the basis of the genetic characteristics of individuals. 

RIKEN has traditionally been proactive in linking its research findings directly with industry, creating commercial products with wide social application. To this end, RIKEN has developed a unique system, the RIKEN Venture system, which allows RIKEN researchers to launch venture companies based on core technology developed through RIKEN research. Many RIKEN venture companies subsequently become independent from RIKEN, and many now hold leading positions in various industries. 

RIKEN is also committed to strong international collaboration. Measures in place include programs with leading universities in Asia and Europe where researchers are offered positions at RIKEN. RIKEN also has several overseas facilities, and runs collaborative programs with universities and institutes around the globe. This allows RIKEN to conduct its research on a global basis, involving the very best researchers from around the world.


Written on Dec 8, 2010. Corrected on Oct 28, 2011.

About the author
Eriko Kinashi is a reporter for Japanest NIPPON

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