Roundtable discussion
Exploring a new concept of materials research (Part I)


June 2009 — AIMResearch hosted a roundtable discussion among the directors and group leaders of the WPI-AIMR to deliberate on the challenges of increasing the global presence of the WPI-AIMR and creating Japan-originated disciplines in materials science.

Participants in the roundtable discussion.
Clockwise from top left: Yoshinori Yamamoto, Toshio Sakurai, Tomihiro Hashizume, Terunobu Miyazaki, and Mingwei Chen.
Participants in the roundtable discussion.
Clockwise from top left: Yoshinori Yamamoto, Toshio Sakurai, Tomihiro Hashizume, Terunobu Miyazaki, and Mingwei Chen.

Tohoku University’s Advanced Institute for Materials Research (AIMR) was established in October 2007 as one of Japan’s five World Premier International (WPI) Research Centers. With 120 researchers in four research groups, the WPI-AIMR has been strengthening efforts to increase its global presence by integrating the traditional Japanese system with the Western approach to scientific research. Ultimately, the WPI-AIMR aims to create Japan-originated disciplines in materials science. In June 2009, AIMResearch hosted a roundtable discussion of the directors and group leaders of the WPI-AIMR to discuss the institute’s strengths and the challenges ahead.

AIMResearch: Thank you all for joining this roundtable discussion on the role and future of Tohoku University’s WPI-AIMR. Could you please tell us a little of your background and your group’s activities.

Yamamoto: I joined Tohoku University as a professor in the Department of Chemistry and was appointed director of the WPI-AIMR in October 2007. Our new building was opened in April this year. Many of the researchers at the WPI-AIMR came from our university’s Institute for Materials Research (IMR) and graduate schools of engineering and science. I specialize in molecular synthesis, particularly for small- and medium-sized organic molecules. In my Nanochemistry Group, we have eight principal investigators whose specialties range from electro-surface chemistry and bio-oriented polymers, to process chemistry.

Sakurai: After working at Bell Telephone, the Pennsylvania State University and the University of Tokyo’s Institute for Solid State Physics, I was appointed in 1989 as a professor at the IMR to head research into nano-surface physics, and I now lead the Nanophysics Group at the WPI-AIMR. Our research at the WPI-AIMR is founded in nanophysics, and in fact our International Advisory Board is chaired by the famous nanophysicist Professor Heinrich Rohrer, a Nobel laureate and co-inventor of the scanning tunneling microscope (STM), which laid the foundation for modern nanophysics.

Hashizume: I am one of 10 principal investigators in the Nanophysics Group. Until 15 years ago, I was an associate professor at IMR and worked with Professor Sakurai using STMs to investigate surface phenomena. I then moved to Hitachi and now have a joint appointment with the WPI-AIMR. At Hitachi, our team made the world’s thinnest wire — a chain of 15 atoms — in collaboration with Taro Hitosugi, who is now an associate professor in my team. We are currently focusing on research that bridges the fields of physics and chemistry to create functional nano-scale devices.
Other teams in the Nanophysics Group use high-resolution transmission electron microscopy to look at interfaces, nanostructures and surface structures, as well as carbon-based materials. Masashi Kawasaki’s group, for example, has developed unique devices such as insulator-based light-emitting devices and field-effect transistors.

Chen: I spent about four years at Johns Hopkins University in the US, and then came back to IMR as a professor in 2003. I later moved to the WPI-AIMR. My recent research focuses on microstructure characterization of advanced materials by high-resolution TEM. In the last few years, my team has spent a lot of time trying to understand the deformation and damage mechanisms in ultrahigh-strength, functional nano-scale materials, including bulk metallic glasses (BMGs). Right now, I lead the Bulk Metallic Glasses group with five other principal investigators devoted to experimental and theoretical investigations of the structure and properties of BMGs, among other things.

Miyazaki: I head the Device/System Group with four other principal investigators. We devote our efforts to the development of advanced micro-electro-mechanical systems, optical fibers, semiconductors, silicon devices and spintronics.

AIMResearch: Could you explain the role of the WPI-AIMR? Why did Tohoku University, already recognized as a world leader in materials science, decide to establish this new research institute?

Yamamoto: Tohoku University’s long-standing IMR has earned the global number-one position in ‘hard’ physics-based materials science. I believe future materials science will be based on the integration, or fusion, of physics, chemistry and biology, and I’d like to strengthen this type of ‘soft’ materials research.

I ask all of our researchers to add one more research field to their specialized areas. For example, I would encourage a specialist in physics-based materials science to incorporate knowledge of chemistry- or bio-based materials science. I understand this is not easy for everyone, but we know that new discoveries are often brought about through this sort of fusion research. In a traditional Japanese way, new discoveries often emerge from a bottom-up approach. But I’ve now adopted a more ‘top-down’ approach, a requirement under the WPI initiative of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT).

We should become more globalized. Japanese researchers are very strong in probing deeper and deeper based on established research. However, we are slow to shift the paradigms of research. It is my sincere hope that someone from our institute will one day receive the Nobel Prize for developing an entirely new, Japanese-originated field of research.

AIMResearch: The WPI-AIMR has been introducing novel research and administrative systems. How have these reforms been progressing?

Yamamoto: As our mission, we are introducing new research and administrative systems to break with the traditional, old-fashioned Japanese approach to research, which is typified by the ‘koza’ system of hierarchy within narrowly defined specialties and the prioritization of funding for influential professors. At many research institutes in Japan, everything, including salaries, is still based on age. At the WPI-AIMR, we have created a modern system that defines salaries according to researchers’ accomplishments, considering factors such as citations, impact factors, awards, patents and practical application of research. Our organization is flexible and does not have a strict pyramidal hierarchy structure.

Sakurai: The WPI-AIMR offers salaries on individual annual contracts of 10–20% higher than those for regular tenure positions at Tohoku University. Professor Yamamoto and I also have the privilege of deciding on the hiring of staff, with the approval of the Tohoku University President Akihisa Inoue, without involving lengthy evaluation committees and faculty meetings.

Chen: I think we are half way through our reforms. We have ideas for better systems and we continue discussions in this area. I can see certain points in the traditional, stable Japanese system that are of considerable merit. For example, BMG research at Tohoku University has been conducted continuously for over 30 years, spanning three generations of laboratory professors. The Japanese government continues to support research on such a long-term basis. These things seldom happen in the US, or anywhere else in the world. Thirty years ago, few people saw a future in BMGs, but now it is becoming important in the metallic material community. In the US in most cases, a professor works in one area for 5–6 years, and then jumps to the next hot topic. But in Japan, many professors spend their entire career in one area. It’s important to figure out how to balance these two styles of research.

Hashizume: It’s also very difficult in an industrial environment to pursue one research project for more than five years.

Part II of AIMResearch’s coverage of the roundtable discussion will be continued in August.

About the WPI Initiative
In 2007, the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) established a program to strengthen leading research centers by providing each institute with substantial funding of ¥500 million (US$5 million) to ¥2 billion (US$20 million) a year for 10–15 years. In return, the World Premier International (WPI) Research Centers benefiting from this support are expected to create novel research systems and establish strong visibility in the global scientific community. For more information on the WPI initiative, please visit the WPI website.