Experts say a series of lawsuits against Japanese universities and research labs brought by researchers and teachers who risk losing their jobs because they are eligible for permanent employment have shed light on the precarious situation facing faced by those pursuing or planning to pursue an academic career.
Japanese labor policies were changed in April 2013 to make contract employment the norm in universities. Academics are currently employed under contract with the right to an extension to indefinite or permanent status after 10 years.
The Ministry of Education claims that this system encourages much-needed competition and reforms in Japanese higher education.
However, many researchers, first hired in 2013 when the rule came into force, are now at risk of being made redundant before 2023 – before they can gain the right to permanent employment after 10 years of extendable contracts – as universities try to dodge financial difficulties. implications of permanent appointments.
Alarm on likely job losses
The Department for Education reports that more than 3,000 researchers at universities and research centers will become eligible to apply for permanent status next year, raising concerns about likely job losses as universities cut costs try to avoid giving them status.
Many universities have kept foreign researchers and adjunct professors on temporary contracts and are likely to lay them off, unions said.
“Even in prestigious scientific institutions, researchers find it difficult to continue their studies. The lack of financial and professional stability poses a serious risk to the development of research and higher education in Japan,” said Toru Nakano, a former professor at the Graduate School of Frontier Biosciences at Osaka University.
Nakano, a specialist in stem cell research and epigenetics, said Academia News the dire situation of postdoctoral researchers in Japan is linked to pressure from universities to cut costs. “The reduction in human resources by eliminating permanent positions is the result,” he said.
Nakano also cited an ambiguous evaluation system in universities that leads to the rejection of applications for full-time positions. The extension of current academic contracts for 10 years is based on evaluations carried out within university departments. “Most often we just don’t know the reason for their rejection,” he said.
In what is an unprecedented challenge to the current system, the first lawsuit was filed in March by a research scientist in his 60s who works part-time at RIKEN, Japan’s flagship natural science institution with the largest network high-level laboratories in the country.
Represented by the union, the researcher, who remains anonymous, is seeking compensation of 1.1 million yen ($7,900) for the serious damage caused to his research and his team after RIKEN asked him to close his laboratory l ‘last year.
The researcher, whose 10-year contract ends in 2023, said he was forced to put his accumulated research on optical imaging techniques for the early detection of breast cancer on hold despite steady progress and achievements.
His attorney Yosuke Minaguchi said Academia News this was a landmark case as RIKEN does not face financial constraints. “The researcher is fighting for stable employment, not only for himself and his team, but also to stop the brain drain of talented researchers who leave Japan for new jobs,” Minaguchi said.
Last month, RIKEN announced that 380 researchers would lose their jobs after the 10-year contract limit. The statement adds that some researchers will be rehired based on their projects.
In the 1990s, RIKEN had about 400 researchers, mostly permanent employees working on fundamental physics and chemistry at the main campus in Tokyo. Despite research expanding to include preventive medicine, brain sciences and other fields, 77% of its current employees, who number nearly 3,000, are on fixed-term contracts, according to media reports. .
Of the 380 researchers to be laid off, 203 are directly attached to the institution. The loss of these scientists and the closure of their research projects will affect an additional 42 laboratory workers and 177 people working in research-related jobs.
The institution acknowledged that the number is high compared to previous years. From fiscal year 2019 (beginning in April) to fiscal year 2021, on average every year, 170 scholars completed their terms and left RIKEN, he said.
This month, a lawsuit was filed against Tokai University by eight part-time professors claiming the university violated their employment contracts. Tokai did not grant permanent status in April to the plaintiffs, who had worked for Tokai for five years and only received annual extensions.
In response, Tokai said applications for full-time status can only be accepted after 10 years of work have been completed.
In a similar case in 2020, the Tokyo High Court upheld a request for permanent status without having to serve 10 years by a language professor at Tokyo’s private Senshu University. This case and the Tokai lawsuit are being conducted on the basis that the 10-year deadline is aimed at researchers and not language teachers or part-time lecturers.
Impact on research
Despite the government’s claim that fixed-term contracts promote job mobility and competition, the decline in permanent positions has not yielded good results, critics say. They note that a steady decline in the number of postdoctoral students at Japanese universities could pose a threat to the future of higher education, affecting both the sciences and the humanities.
The oft-quoted 2016 Nobel laureate and cell biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi warned that the entire scientific discipline was in jeopardy. He said science will “go hollow” unless young Japanese researchers are given the opportunity to commit to long-term research.
Eisuke Enoki, director of Kaseikan, an organization that studies science policy, predicts further deterioration.
“While competition is beneficial, if the outcome of the 10-year labor contract leaves senior researchers facing financial bankruptcy, then the system is not working,” he said.
According to Enoki, transfers for middle-aged researchers are not easy in a conservative Japanese labor market, which is off-putting to young people who want to get into research.
The unions are calling on the government to intervene to prevent the layoffs.
The Department of Health, Labor and Social Care said in 2020 it had asked universities to avoid layoffs, while the Department of Education announced new funding pledges to help young researchers, for example, a new 10 trillion yen ($72 billion) government fund set up in May this year aimed to expand support for new research at universities through returns on investment.
As funding for R&D in Japan increased in the 1990s, jobs were often on fixed-term contracts with lower pay and fewer benefits compared to tenure. Still, the practice then was that contracts were renewed indefinitely, Nakano said.
“It’s time to admit your mistakes”
“The worst period started after the government cut grants to national universities. This particularly affected the science and research departments. It’s time to admit mistakes and rectify the situation,” Nakano said.
RIKEN President Makoto Gonokami announced new policies last month aimed at developing “research career paths that offer both stability and mobility.”
As RIKEN expands its plans with increased budget resources leading to 200 new positions, it said in a statement last month that in the current fiscal year it will allow anyone, regardless of existing contractual limits on the duration of their employment with RIKEN, to apply for new project work after completing their current work.
“Allowing researchers to join a new research project without interrupting their employment at RIKEN means that these employees gain the right to apply for a move to permanent employment,” he said.