Utilize URA personnel to stem decline in Japan’s scientific research

The Yomiuri ShimbunIt has been a long time since the decline in scientific research in Japan was identified. There is also the problem that the results of studies are not being utilized for technological and industrial development. Means of overcoming this situation must be considered.

In recent years, there has been a downward trend in the number of academic articles published by scholars in Japan. The United States is ranked highest in this area, with about 270,000 papers annually. In contrast, the figure for Japan stands only at somewhat more than 60,000.

In the United States, there is fertile ground for universities and corporations to closely cooperate and produce new economic value. Universities are highly motivated to procure research funds from outside, and there are many start-ups that were launched by universities. Japanese universities have been said to be weak in that respect.

One noticeable way to improve the situation is the utilization of personnel who support research activities. Progress is being made in introducing the profession known as a university research administrator (URA).

The profession of URA is regarded as a third type of occupation that transcends the barriers between teaching staff and clerical personnel. In Japan, serious efforts have been made to introduce this profession from around 2011. As of fiscal 2017, a total of about 1,200 URAs were affiliated with national, public and private universities as well as research institutions.

They are in charge of such duties as preparing documents to apply for a program through which the national government funds research activities, while also facilitating coordination with joint researchers. They look for companies that will offer research funds, while also applying for patents based on research results. URA personnel handle a wide range of tasks.

Improve job conditions

In the past, teaching staff were mainly responsible for carrying out these duties, but there is a limit to what can be done by each individual. Obtaining the help of URAs as professionals is effective in this regard.

Universities and research institutions that have already introduced the URA system have said that, among other things, it has made it possible for their teaching staff and researchers to concentrate on research activities. Given that they are freed from non-research work, they can also be expected to write more articles.

If workable ties are built between corporations and universities though URA activities, it can be expected to take industry-academia partnerships to a new level, including the development of new products and technology.

However, the status of URAs’ employment is not stable, and their period of service is mostly less than five years. To secure excellent personnel as URAs, it is indispensable to consider improving the treatment of such staff.

More than a few teaching staff at universities see URAs as their assistants before anything else. However, if people who have worked at companies are hired as URAs and encouraged to work with teaching staff in thinking about research strategies from a new perspective, it will improve the level of their research activities.

The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry intends to introduce a certification system for URAs as early as fiscal 2021, designed to assess their areas of expertise and abilities. Efforts should be made to facilitate a framework for appropriately assessing URAs, so they can help invigorate Japan’s scientific research.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Aug. 12, 2019)Speech


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