Font Size

HOME > No.20, Feb 2020 > Feature Story : Contributing to Society through Continuous Development of R&D

Contributing to Society through Continuous Development of R&D

Takashi Onishi

R&D at the university level is crucial in that it allows for continuous, high-quality research, the achievements of which can be applied by companies and other organizations in order to benefit society. What kinds of initiatives should be taken to encourage such research? Toyohashi University of Technology president Takashi Onishi has worked both to ensure the continuous development of the university’s R&D, and to improve the university’s capabilities by promoting collaborative research with top institutions and leading companies in Japan and around the world. We asked President Onishi about the five and a half years of research and development initiatives he has led since taking up his position in 2014.

Interview and report by Madoka Tainaka

About the Research Institute for Technological Science and Innovation (RITI)

In recent times, individuals in the national government and cabinet have been using the media to vigorously attack Japanese universities, particularly national universities. They mention declining university research capabilities and a lack of competitiveness among universities as factors hindering Japan’s competitiveness in the international community. As we can see by the increased numbers of international students in Japan, students today are more likely to think globally. In order to demonstrate the value of universities in society, it is crucial to conduct high-quality R&D and work to ensure its continuous development going forward.

To help address these issues, Toyohashi University of Technology established the Research Institute for Technological Science and Innovation (RITI) in 2016, pushing for reforms in R&D. Leading these reforms is Takashi Onishi, who has served as the university’s president since April 2014.

"RITI serves as a framework for conducting research focused on industry-academic partnerships and social partnerships as well as working to further develop our research activities based in the Electronics-Inspired Interdisciplinary Research Institute (EIIRIS) and four other research centers," explains Onishi.

"RITI has also established a Strategic Research Division and works to promote research across three different categories. Specifically, the three categories consist of the Emergent Systems Research Division, which carries out collaborative research with companies, the Social Systems Research Division, which carries out research on regional communities with local governments, and the Advanced (Interdisciplinary) Research Division, which carries out cutting-edge research with advanced research institutions in Japan and overseas."

The Emergent Systems Research Division carries out jointly-funded collaborative research with companies. The university provides a specific amount of research funds (4 to 10 million yen), and the partnering company provides an amount that is equal or greater. This configuration ensures that highly productive research can be conducted. By offering a greater amount of funding than is typical for joint research, the university can broaden its perspective to include social implementation instead of simply stopping at component technology development.

Similarly, with the Social Systems Research Division, funds are provided jointly by the university and a local municipality. Initiatives address societal issues in regional communities.

Meanwhile, the Advanced (Interdisciplinary) Research Division aims to improve the sophistication and diversity of research at the university by collaborating with researchers from Japanese and overseas institutions that possess advanced research capabilities.

"For Emergent Systems Research (which is joint research conducted with companies), we are presently moving forward with 12 projects focusing on next-generation fuel cells, robotics, and sensing devices," says Onishi. "The Advanced (Interdisciplinary) Research Division has established joint research laboratories with the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, the University of Stuttgart, and others, pursuing research focused on sensors and new device development, all while working closely with a rotation of young researchers."

Strengthening Research Support Systems and Promoting the University's Achievements

Since TUT incorporated as a national university corporation in 2004, management expense grants from the national government have declined, making it difficult for national universities to operate. Under these circumstances, it is not easy to find large budgets for new R&D expenses. In this regard, President Onishi says that initiatives to increase joint research are essential to ensure continuous development of the university.

"Toyohashi University of Technology adopted measures to strengthen its research in 2013," he recalls. "As a part of these measures, the university hired URAs (University Research Administrators) as specialized staff members hired to support research and established the RAC (Research Administration Center), which serves as an organization that widely publicizes the university's research achievements to society. There are presently 13 specialized staff serving as URAs and coordinators.

"This organization serves to coordinate and tailor the university’s research to meet the needs of society. This includes pitching university research to companies, helping to match with companies, and providing a variety of other R&D-related support. Such activities require a wide range of skills, including fluency in other languages, the ability to negotiate with research institutions overseas, management of university data, and occasionally consulting with students. Negotiating with companies is also essential, so naturally, more than half of our staff have abundant experience in the corporate world," says Onishi.

In the past, people with such roles did not work in Japanese universities. However, in order to ensure the continuous development of university R&D, it has become crucial to promote open innovation and showcase the university’s achievements to the outside world. As such, the URA is indispensable.

Meanwhile, associated personnel costs are an overhead expense that must be financed through external funding. The university cannot simply rely on subsidies and management expense grants and must secure external funds. Without the ability to sustain the mechanisms to support research, the university cannot expect to operate stably or maintain its quality.

To address this, the university has made efforts to increase overhead expenses for research support from 10% to 30% in relation to direct expenses (expenses directly related to research). In countries like the United States, it is already normal to have around 50% of overhead expenses secured. In Japan, overhead expenses account for 30% of scientific research grants.

"On an individual level, the significance of overhead expenses has not been fully realized. I believe that securing an environment that supports research both institutionally and financially will contribute to the continuous development of R&D throughout the university. We will need to continue such efforts going forward," says Onishi.

Using Japanese Urban Planning Methods in University Management

The university’s steady investments in R&D are paying off, to the extent that we are now witnessing a variety of achievements by its Advanced Research Division, Electronics-Inspired Interdisciplinary Research Institute (EIIRIS), and four other research centers focused on robotics, agriculture, disaster prevention, and future vehicles.

In particular, EIIRIS has a semiconductor research facility that essentially makes it a factory for LSI chips. In addition to prototyping specialized smart sensors and photonic devices, the institution also has a tenure track system that allows it to serve as a platform for young researches to independently conduct ongoing research. “We have done pretty well in terms of creating an ideal environment for R&D,” Onishi proudly states.

In fact, Onishi says that creating such an environment required looking to his own field of expertise.

"I specialize in urban planning, which consists of creating a master plan for the future and considering a methodology to achieve it. Of course, this requires funding. In addition to relying on external funds, money has to be created and circulated internally. In that sense, urban planning and university management are similar.

"I was inspired by a traditional Japanese approach to urban development known as land readjustment. This system had landowners provide small increments of private land to create public spaces such as parks and roads that were integral to the city. Giving up their land was painful for the landowners, but doing so increased the value of the entire community and led to an increase in the value of their own assets as well. It was a system that required collaboration from everyone. This single revelation in urban planning is now known throughout the world," says Onishi.

The university continues to push forward on joint research activities with RITI and provide money to increase joint research funding. These activities are creating a beneficial cycle that increases overhead expenses and contributes to high-quality research.

"Though we are only halfway there, I believe we have found an approach that will allow for the continuous development of university R&D," concludes President Onishi.

Reporter's Note

President Onishi will conclude his term as university president in March 2020. While his plans from April onwards have yet to be decided, he expresses a desire to use his knowledge to contribute to sustainably developing Japan’s cities.

"Recently, Japan’s declining population is said to be causing difficulties in sustaining local municipalities. In fact, I have continued to sound the alarm about this issue since as early as the 1990s. Awareness of this crisis has now spread. Going forward, I want to focus on examining how to redesign Japan’s cities following the decline in population," says President Onishi. In tackling Japan’s largest societal issue, Onishi has set his sights on another difficult challenge.

Share this story

Researcher Profile

Dr. Takanobu Inoue

Dr. Takashi Onishi

Dr. Takashi Onishi received PhD degree in engineering in 1980 from the University of Tokyo. He was placed in a key position for President of Science Council of Japan from 2011 to 2017 and Vice President of The Japan Association of National Universities from 2015 to 2017. In 2014, he was assigned seventh President of Toyohashi University of Technology and is almost ending his term.

Reporter Profile

Madoka Tainaka

Madoka Tainaka is a freelance editor, writer and interpreter. She graduated in Law from Chuo University, Japan. She served as a chief editor of "Nature Interface" magazine, a committee for the promotion of Information and Science Technology at MEXT (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology).