Thousands of researchers and university staff members in Japan are at risk of losing their jobs next year because of apparent loopholes in employment laws implemented a decade ago. Researchers are alarmed at the scale of the potential job losses, and say the cuts would have a devastating effect on the country’s research capacity.

By Tim Hornyak

Researchers watch another researcher carrying out an experiment under a microscope in the lab
Dozens of research teams at RIKEN’s network of basic research laboratories will be closed down early next year.Credit: Kyodo News Stills/Getty

The laws, introduced in 2013 and 2014, were designed to give researchers on fixed-term contracts some long-term job security, by putting a ten-year time limit on such agreements. After that time, employees have the right, in principle, to request a permanent position. Next April marks a decade since the first of the rules came in. But some researchers on temporary contracts are finding that their institutions are terminating their employment — or asking them to resign — just before they are eligible for permanent jobs.

There are roughly 3,100 researchers on fixed-term contracts at dozens of national universities and research centres who will have been employed for ten years by the end of March, according to Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. Some of those people might be made permanent employees, but many will lose their jobs, say researchers.

And the figure could be an underestimate: lawmaker Tomoko Tamura, a member of the opposition Japanese Communist Party who sits in the upper house of the National Diet, says that her own analysis of the ministry’s findings suggests that up to 4,500 researchers might lose their jobs by the end of March.

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 “If the ten-year employment termination is not rescinded and employment is not stabilized, it will definitely lead to a decline in Japan’s scientific research capacity in the long run,” says Kanai.

Decade lost
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 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.

Compounding factors
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 giving 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.