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Researchers Interview

Atsufumi Hirohata (Professor, Department of Electronics, University of York, United Kingdom)
October 30, 2015

Atsufumi Hirohata
- What are your reasons for coming to carry out your research overseas?

When I was studying at Keio University, I aspired to continue on to undertake a doctoral degree. When it came to choosing my research topic, I decided to carry out my studies overseas as that offered the best opportunity for me to engage in the research that I wanted to do. I considered various options in English-speaking countries, and finally decided on the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. After I received my doctoral degree, I undertook my postdoctoral research over six years at universities as well as at national research institutes in the United States and Japan. As the employment conditions in Japanese research sectors was such that many positions came with fixed-term contracts, I began to think about finding a position where I would be able to focus on my research continuously in the same environment. That was when the University of York happened to have an opening for a faculty member, and I applied for the position.

- How would you assess the position of Japan in your research area or the differences between Japan and the U.K. since you came to York?

My field of research is magnetism, an area that Japan has traditionally been strong in. It was a Japanese manufacturer that developed the strongest permanent magnet in the world today, for example. I also understand that Japan enjoys a significant lead in research on the production of magnetic materials. Japan has excellent resources, including the most advanced equipment, a rich talent pool and a wide range of research groups.

In terms of how research is conducted, I feel that the differences between Japan and the United Kingdom emerge most clearly in the way experiments are performed. The Japanese generally prefer to carry out systematic studies by fabricating many specimens, characterising them using a series of conditions and collecting an enormous amount of data. On the other hand, the British tend to find such a systematic approach to be bothersome. When they come up with a new idea, they first sit down and spend about a week planning how they can most efficiently write a paper. The ideal for them would be to write a paper with significant impact based on a single experiment. I guess they are committed to conducting “beautiful” research. A similar difference can be found when it comes to writing grant applications and journal papers, which I find very amusing.

- What do you think about the U.K. research support system?

In my case, I receive support mainly from a British research funding organization: the EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council). The EPSRC defines two application formats: a standard application format known as “responsive mode”, and application specific to a subject identified by the EPSRC. Although the former format had originally been the norm, greater weight has been placed on the latter in recent years due to budget cuts along with the prioritisation of research subjects by the U.K. government. The “responsive mode” format does not set an application deadline and its selection panel is held only once a certain number of applications have been received, which makes this application format easy and accessible. However, the budget situation just mentioned has meant that the acceptance rate has fallen below 10%, making it increasingly difficult to obtain research funding in the engineering field.

Another major funding organisation is the Royal Society. I have also been funded under their Industry Fellowship. The Royal Society organises outreach training courses and other programs for researchers, and recommends researchers to attend these programs, as well as organising events for the general public. For instance, I understand the Royal Society occasionally rents out the Science Museum in London for such events. In Japan, on the contrary, such public events are run to coincide with academic conferences held by the respective academic societies. When we explain our research to those who are not professionals in our field at these Royal Society events, we are sometimes asked questions which we have never considered. I find these different perspectives can be very interesting for my own research, especially when I think back on them. I believe that such activities are extremely beneficial not only to the public but also to the researchers in both Japan and the U.K.

- How would you explain the features of the higher educational system in the U.K. from the viewpoint of a faculty member?

At universities in the U.K., the ratio of effort which faculty members put into education, research and administration is approximately 4:4:2. In particular, the effort dedicated to education is very high compared with the Japanese system. I imagine Japan will eventually become similar. The U.K. has established a framework that allows students to evaluate university programmes and classes, etc. through a nationally standardised system known as the NSS (National Student Survey). Students in their final year at a university complete an online evaluation two months prior to their graduation. The results are announced in newspapers and other media every year, and have significant impact on the number of applicants to each university in the following academic year. This is a stringent evaluation system for the universities. In the past, there had been a strong trend of students entering universities of their own volition, which I think warranted this system to be a successful one. However, in recent years, tuition fees have been increased up to three times as high as previous levels before 2011, causing university entrance to be an issue involving the entire family. These days, you may see students with their families (sometimes with their grandparents!) visiting a university during campus or department open days. In this respect, the atmosphere in the U.K. university system is getting closer to that in Japan.

In terms of securing tuition fees, the U.K. universities have been making a very active effort to accept foreign students from outside the European Union. It is possible to receive a Master’s degree in one year in the U.K. and it is also possible to receive a doctoral degree in as little as three years after graduating from an undergraduate course even without a Master’s degree. This is why the U.K. universities attract many foreign students. An especially large number of students from China enroll in Master’s programs in the U.K. As an example, 80% of the Master’s students at the Department of Electronics in the University of York are from China. Such U.K. degree system also gives us some challenges. The field of engineering is driven by empirical values, such as how well one can operate equipment, how well one can fix broken equipment and how well one can interpret experimental results. Hence, it is our responsibility to elevate students’ skills to a satisfactory level before their completion of Master’s and doctoral degrees.

- Could you tell us about your international collaborative research, especially with Japan? How would you develop it in the future?

As I have explained, Japan has traditionally been strong in the field of magnetism and has rich research resources. I am currently collaborating with many universities, including Tohoku, Keio, Kyushu and Osaka Universities. I feel very fortunate to be able to have many links with these top universities probably because I am working outside Japan.

Many visiting students in my group come not just from Japan but also from Hong Kong, China, Europe and elsewhere for both short- and long-term stays. Since I became a PRESTO researcher in 2008, I have been able to enhance my research capabilities by installing new equipment, resulting in an increase in the number of my PhD students and visitors. This enhancement has helped me to establish a foundation for my research group. Under the PRESTO program, I was also able to build networks with researchers from a wide range of research fields. Through discussion with them, I have recently come up with some ideas for potential applications of my research to areas such as laboratory-on-a-chip development and microchannel design. I very much appreciate the generous support provided by the JST.

In the coming decade, I hope to develop these research areas to a level where the University of York is regarded as the world-leader. Furthermore, I may be able to attract even more students and postdoctoral researchers from all over the world and to provide an attractive place for cutting-edge research. Although the Japanese have conventionally had strong connections with the United States, I think they should turn their eyes towards the U.K. as well as Europe, so that balanced human resources and research styles can be developed in Japan.