Mass layoffs for Japanese researchers | science

Thousands of researchers at Japanese institutes and universities could see their jobs disappear by next spring, an unintended result of labor legislation passed a decade ago that gave researchers who have worked on fixed-term contracts for more than 10 years the right to permanent employment. Japan’s scientific system has many such temporary workers—but instead of hiring them outright, institutions are laying them off.

Scientists are trying to avoid layoffs; The union for RIKEN, Japan’s network of nationally supported laboratories, lodged a protest with a Tokyo labor board last month and may take legal action. Regardless of the outcome, the dispute could create more turmoil in a research system whose global influence is already waning. “We are on the verge of seeing a possible mass dismissal of researchers this year,” Tomoko Tamura, a member of the upper house of the legislature, said during a parliamentary question in May on the issue. 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.

Japan’s R&D funding grew rapidly in the 1990s and 2000s, but many newly recruited researchers were employed on fixed-term contracts, which offer lower wages, fewer benefits, and less job security than permanent jobs. . The scheme gave research institutions more flexibility – 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 decided to roughly double government spending on research within 5 years, but the National Personnel Authority resisted increasing the number of employees on the national government’s payroll. Instead, RIKEN used project funds to hire many temporary workers. Today RIKEN has programs in brain science, quantum computing and preventive medicine spread across 10 branches and campuses, and runs a powerful synchrotron and a peta-scale supercomputer. But 77% of the 2,893 current researchers are part-time workers.

Legislation passed in 2013 and amended in 2014 gave most contract workers the right to seek permanent employment after working for the same employer for 5 years; for researchers, the term was set at 10 years. Many employers have responded by making sure contract workers never accumulate that length of service.

RIKEN took that step in 2016, specifying that the counting 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 the end of the year of next. In an email to science, RIKEN says 203 tenure-track 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 indefinite 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 another 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 or more years is “illegal”, says Yasuyuki Kanai, chairman of the executive committee of the RIKEN labor union. He says the researchers have the right to continue employment. Unsatisfied with the way RIKEN negotiated, the union on June 20 formally asked a government labor relations board to order the agency to bargain in good faith. With the support of the unions, “researchers are now preparing to take the case to court,” says Kanai. The union notes that new cohorts of several dozen tenure-track researchers each year will reach the term limit 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 keep their workers. The National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology has returned to permanent status all 245 fixed-term contractors who applied for it, according to press reports. Tohoku University is said to be screening 275 tenure-track scholars for possible permanent employment. At the University of Tokyo, which has 588 fixed-term employees approaching 10 years of service, some may be moved to new projects, a spokesman said, without elaborating.

The broader problem is the lack of opportunities for researchers to change jobs in Japan, says Eisuke Enoki, who heads an Osaka-based organization that studies science policy. “The originally envisioned ideal was for academics to become assistant professors after one or two postdocs and earn a permanent position if tenure is approved,” he says. But a tenure system has never caught on, and there are few permanent positions, even for team leaders with good track records, Enoki says.

A senior scientist at RIKEN, who asked not to be identified, agrees. His final contract is coming to an end and it is “very difficult to find a new position”, he says: “If I find a job in China, Korea or Taiwan, I will move”. The crisis underscores that for young people in Japan, “being a researcher is not an attractive profession,” he adds.

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