Researchers warn that if the potential job losses go ahead, the effect could be devastating for Japanese science. Enrolment in doctoral programmes has been declining since 2003. That, combined with researchers losing their jobs because of the ten-year limit on fixed-term employment, will create a major problem for the country’s ability to develop a pipeline of researchers doing basic science, says Yasuyuki Kanai, chair of the executive committee of the labour union at RIKEN, a large, government-funded network of basic research laboratories, which is headquartered in Wako near Tokyo. “If the ten-year employment termination is not rescinded and employment is not stabilized, it will definitely lead to a decline in Japan’s scientific research capacity in the long run,” says Kanai.
Some researchers have already been forced out. One university employee says they lost their fixed-term job this year, after being informed that they would not qualify for the same job if it were made a permanent position. “I worked ridiculous amounts of unpaid overtime but they gave nothing back,” says the researcher, who also requested anonymity to protect their privacy. “This was a huge loss of trust.”
When the rules were first introduced in 2013, employees on temporary contracts could ask to be made permanent after five years; this was later extended to ten years for researchers meeting certain conditions, such as those working on special projects. But many universities kept researchers, particularly those from abroad and adjunct professors, on temporary contracts for up to a decade, and are now letting them go, says Louis Carlet, an organizer at Tozen Union, a small union based in Tokyo that represents university teachers, among other workers.
One foreign researcher at a Japanese university who will reach the ten-year limit and lose their job in March was shocked when they were asked to quit. “I worked hard but I realize I will never get a permanent job in Japan. I feel disposable,” says the researcher, who requested anonymity to protect their prospects of gaining a new job outside Japan. “This was a lost decade for my career.”
Affected researchers and unions are calling for the government to step in and prevent the cuts. Eisuke Enoki, a pathologist in Kobe who leads the science-policy association Kaseiken, says that universities often hire researchers on fixed-term contracts to avoid incurring ongoing salary costs once short-term research projects have finished. The government budget for national universities has been reduced by 1% each year for more than 15 years, so universities have come to rely increasingly on funding for specific projects from the government or private companies.
Another factor that is compounding the potential job losses is a government initiative to boost the number of researchers under 40 years old at universities, meaning that those who have spent a decade on fixed-term contracts are often too old to apply for some positions, says Enoki.
Tamura says the government should immediately reverse 20 years’ worth of cuts to subsidies for national universities’ operating expenses, which would allow institutions to hire more full-time researchers.
The science and education ministry told Nature that employers should not force staff out to avoid hiring them permanently. When asked what the government is doing about the issue, the ministry said it has formulated guidelines for how institutions should support the careers of younger staff members on fixed-term contracts and allocate funds to help early-career researchers to secure jobs.
RIKEN’s union says that 203 researchers will lose their jobs and 42 research teams will be shut down, with the latter resulting in the termination of another 177 research-related jobs. Some scientists have already left research after having given up hope of avoiding job losses, says Kanai. The union has urged RIKEN to renew workers’ fixed-term contracts. Unlike national universities, RIKEN has seen its government funding for operations increase in the past few years.
In a statement, RIKEN said some people with expiring contracts might be kept on, but did not specify how many. When projects end, RIKEN says, it provides support to the researchers involved to help them to get other jobs. RIKEN wants “new generations of outstanding researchers to work on new and important projects, thereby enhancing the research and development capabilities of Japan’s academic community as a whole,” the statement read.