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アウトリーチAn Interview with Director-General

An Interview with Director-General 

On Reaching the 10-Year Milestone at MANA

− First, could you describe the motivation and aims that you considered when MANA was launched in NIMS as a WPI research center?

 In 2000, which was several years before MANA was launched, President Clinton of the United States presented a Presidential Message entitled the “National Nanotechnology Initiative,” in which he declared that the United States would devote its energies to research on nanotechnology in the years to come. This news made headlines around the world and created the global nanotechnology fever. Since I took pride in being a pioneer in nanotechnology even before that (laughter), I viewed that move calmly. In fact, I had already organized the “Aono Atomcraf t Project” as an ERATO Project under the JRDC (now JST) in 1989 to 1994, and that was considered to be the world’s first nanotechnology-related research project with government involvement. For this reason, conversely, I also understood the meaning of this global nanotechnology fever better than anyone – that Japan must be the world’s leader in nanotechnology. Coincidentally, we received the news that MEXT planned to launch the World Premier International Research Center Initiative, or WPI, from 2007. After consulting with the then-President of NIMS, Prof. Teruo Kishi, I conceived the idea of creating a world-class nanotechnology research center in NIMS. We prepared the Grand Design for that project, applied to the WPI Project and were selected.

− Could you talk about the birth of the concept of “nanoarchitectonics,” which is the framework for MANA, and the direction of research under that concept?

 At the time, microtechnology, in which integrated circuits were created by miniaturizing transistors and other devices, had already developed to an extraordinary degree, and as you know, that brought about a revolution in information technology. However, for that reason, nanotechnology was perceived as an extension of microtechnology. In other words, a further refinement of microtechnology along the same lines would be nanotechnology. Even today many people still have that idea, but it is a complete misunderstanding. I strongly feel that nanotechnology is not simply an extension of microtechnology, but is qualitatively different, and a clear recognition of that point is critical for true progress in nanotechnology. Although this fact can be expressed by a combination of existing words, I wanted to express it by a new word, and I decided to use “nanoarchitectonics.” While nanoarchitectonics has several connotations, the most important is “unreliability-tolerant reliability.” The world of nanotechnology is defined by a scale of one-billionth of a meter. Due to the thermal and statistical fluctuations that occur in this extreme region, it is not always possible to build structures according to a blueprint. Creating science and technology that make it possible to fabricate materials and system with reliable functions within this limitation – this is one key meaning of nanoarchitectonics.

− Although MANA has produced many outstanding research results, could you mention some that you consider particularly noteworthy?

 There are so many that’s it hard to pick just a few! (laughter) However, let me try . . .
 The “Atomic Switch” is a unique, Japanese-original nanoelectronic device that we invented and MANA continued to research. Through joint research with NEC, this has reached practical application as AtomSW-FPGA, and has begun to be used effectively in robots and satellites.
 MANA also developed the technology for fabricating various 2-dimensional substances called “nanosheets,” which have monoatomic layer thickness, and also developed a technique for layering these nanosheets in any intended order. This has led to the creation of diverse types of novel artificial substances. For example, by using this technique, MANA created a new material with permittivity 20 times larger than that of conventional substances in the thickness region of approximately 10 nm.
 Among other achievements, without going into detail, I can mention the world’s first “observation of a macroscopic superconducting current on a solid surface,” development of a “high efficiency photocatalyst” and realization of “monomolecular level memory.”
 MANA has also developed several original new measurement techniques, such as “high sensitivity olfactory sensor,” “physical property measurement method under observation by transmission electron microscope” and “nanoscale electrical measurement method by multi-probe scanning probe microscope.”

− Four missions were laid out for the WPI centers, 1) Achieving the world’s highest level of research, 2) Creating interdisciplinary research domains, 3) Realizing a global research environment and 4) Reforming the research organization. How is MANA grappling with these missions?

 We gradually recognized that there is a close mutual relationship among these four missions. For example, in order to achieve the world’s highest level of research, it is impor tant to bring together outstanding researchers from Japan and other countries by creating an international research environment, and it is also impor tant to create interdisciplinary research domains. To realize an international research environment, MANA made great ef for ts to improve and expand its technical support division, and to create an administrative division which is friendly to researchers from other countries. The common language in MANA is of course English. To promote interdisciplinary
research, we hold brainstorming sessions called “Grand Challenge Meetings” at hot springs, which gives researchers many opportunities to discuss their dreams all night. We have also set up a “Grand Challenge Fund” that provides financial support for outstanding interdisciplinary research proposals.
 The results of these efforts can be seen in objective numbers. For instance, MANA researchers have published 3,480 papers. In 2015, the Impact Factor of those papers was 6.25 and the percentage of internationally co-authored papers was 58%. The number of highlycited papers (Top 1% in number of citations in the world) was 143, and the FWCI index for evaluation of the quality of papers published by research institutes throughout the world was 2.41 for the period

− There’s a feeling that the 10 year experience of the MANA project has provided a guideline for the ideal form of basic research in Japan.

 Our work is based on the policy that outstanding basic research always leads to applications. However, simply shouting “Let’s do great basic research! ” doesn’t heighten motivation. We thought it was necessary to set some kind of targets. Therefore, we set three “Grand Challenge” research topics in MANA. These are “Creation of an ar tificial brain by nanoarchitectonics,” “Realization of room temperature superconductivity” and “Realization of practical artificial photosynthesis.” This is our plan to win three Nobel Prizes. (Laughter) When we laid out these targets, some people were concerned, and asked “Aono, are you sure this is OK? What do you intend to do if it’s not possible?” I answered by saying, “If you know from the start that something will succeed, it’s not much of challenge! ” Today, 10 years later, we still haven’t completed any of these topics, but we are steadily approaching our goals. What’s more, I think this has also inspired the dreams of researchers at MANA.

− MANA has received a high evaluation as the most international research center in the WPI Program.

 The experience of the International Center for Young Scientists (ICYS), which NIMS operated for a period of 5 years beginning in 2003, was a huge plus. In par ticular, the administrative staff accumulated experience in assisting non-Japanese researchers in a friendly and appropriate manner, and they made a smooth transition to MANA. Simply being proficient in English isn’t enough; it’s important to have administrative people who have really mastered the know-how by experiencing a wide variety of cases. Upgrading our technical support staff was also another key to success. The operation of MANA has given me a strong recognition that improving the administrative division and technical support division is extremely important for the activities of a research organization.

− I’d also like to ask about the role of MANA’s Satellite Labs.

 When the WPI Program was launched, MANA was the only WPI center that created Satellite Labs. At first, we were criticized for wasting our funding on Satellite Labs in other countries, but we believed that mutual cooperation by establishing Satellite Labs overseas was critical for acting internationally. The result was a success. MANA is currently involved in fruitful joint research with six Satellite Labs, and this has become one of the distinctive features of research activities at MANA. Principal Investigators (PI) from the Satellite Labs are also frequently in residence at MANA, and provide active guidance to our researchers here, and they also enjoy that role. As a result, the Satellites were a success.

− As the Director-General of MANA, you’ve nurtured the growth of this research center over these past 10 years. What are your hopes for MANA in the years to come?

 In FY2016, the WPI Program ended its funding for MANA and three other WPI research centers that were launched at the same time in 2007. However, all of these WPI centers have now been placed under a new organization called the WPI Academy. As a result, we will keep the name WPI-MANA. WPI-MANA will also continue as a permanent organization in NIMS, and President Hashimoto of NIMS has given us a heartening promise of active support.
 The current Deputy Director-General of MANA, Dr. Takayoshi Sasaki, will take my place as Director-General, and the Administrative Director is Dr. Tomonobu Nakayama. I hope that MANA will achieve even greater progress in the coming years under the guidance of those two gentlemen. COO Bando and I will also remain as Executive Advisors, and we will support Director-General Sasaki and Administrative Director Nakayama from the shadows, as it were.
 Since the new Director-General Sasaki has said that he wants to continue to develop the concept of nanoarchitectonics, there will probably be little change in MANA’s basic direction, and MANA will continue to follow this challenging course in the years to come.

Masakazu Aono

Dr. Masakazu Aono is currently the Center Director of MANA and also a NIMS Fellow. After receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Tokyo in 1972, he joined the National Institute for Research in Inorganic Materials (NIRIM) as a Research Staff Member. From 1978 to 80, he worked at the Synchrotron Radiation Center of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA, as a Visiting Professor with an IBM group headed by Dr. Dean Eastman. In 1986, he moved to the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research (RIKEN) as a Chief Scientist and organized the Surface and Interface Laboratory. From 1996 to 2005, he was concurrently a Professor of Osaka University. In 2002, he moved to NIMS as the Director of the Nanomaterials Institute and was then appointed to his present position in 2007. He has done various pioneering work in surface science, nanoscience, nanoelectronics and nanoscale measurement, symbolized by the words “impact-collision ion scattering,” “atomcraft,” “atomic switch,” “multiple-probe SPM” and “chemical soldering.”