Patent

Inventor Knocks Japan's System After Settlement

Tokyo—Shuji Nakamura may be $8 million richer. But his new wealth doesn't seem to have bought much happiness.

Last week the Japanese-born engineer blasted his native country's attitude toward innovation and told colleagues they should join him in the United States if they want to be rewarded for their creative talents. His comments followed a court-mediated, $8 million settlement of a suit against his former employer for a share of the enormous profits generated by his breakthrough development of a blue light-emitting diode (LED) and work on blue semiconductor lasers.

Nakamura, now a professor of materials science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, spent 20 years at Nichia Corp. in Anan, Tokushima. The LEDs are now used in giant outdoor displays and traffic signals and could eventually replace ordinary light bulbs, and blue lasers will be at the heart of next-generation DVD players.

In Japan, patents are awarded to individuals, who may cede rights to their employers in exchange for "fair compensation." Nakamura claims to have gotten just $190 for relinquishing a key patent covering a new chemical vapor deposition method used in producing both the blue LEDs and blue lasers. The privately owned Nichia dominates the LED market, with total sales in 2004 topping $2 billion and profits estimated at $950 million.

In 2001, Naka-mura sued the company for a share of those profits. In January 2004, the Tokyo District Court

Shuji Nakamura Speaks Out

Appearing at a press conference in Tokyo on 12 January, Shuji Nakamura had strong words about the settlement of his lawsuit against his former employer and what it represents:

On Japan's court system: "U.S. courts really try to get down to the principles involved in a case. In Japan, hearings are over in 5 or 10 minutes! The court said that paying huge amounts of money to inventors would hinder industrial development.Who can be satisfied with such a system? If we don't change this kind of approach, [circumstances for inventors] in Japan can never be improved."

On the size of the award: "We've been fighting this trial on the idea of sharing 'excess' profits between the inventor and the company, based on their respective contributions. [In two other recent cases, courts awarded 10% and 20% of "excess" profits, judged as being above "normal" profit levels, to the inventors.] In my case, the district court determined that by 2003, Nichia had earned 'excess' profits of 160 billion yen. The high court set an award of 600 million yen. That means my contribution to this patent was not even 0.5%."

On conditions for researchers: "Basically, Japanese society doesn't value the contributions of individuals. In Japan, the world is centered on big companies. The underlying principle is the concept of sacrificing yourself for big companies. In Japan we have a saying that the nail that sticks up gets hammered down I can only say that competent researchers should come to America. It may be tough, but it is a country with a merit sys-tem.You'll be rewarded according to what you do."

On Japan's educational system: "One good point about Japan is its educational system. But it is geared toward turning out production workers. In America, inventors are educated, beginning in childhood, to dream of starting their own companies.American society values individuals, not companies; Japanese society values companies, not individuals."

On the impact of the award: "After paying taxes, attorney fees, etc., very little will be left. I might be able to pay off my mortgage. But that's about it I hate legal battles, they're such a waste of energy. I want to get back to the world of research, where I belong."

awarded him $190 million (Science, 6 February 2004, p. 744). Nichia appealed to the Tokyo High Court, which in a statement recommending a settlement said fair compensation "should be sufficient to motivate employees but at the same time allow the company to survive international competition."

Nichia hailed the settlement, which covers all of Nakamura's patent claims. "Our position was well understood by the court, especially the point that the blue LED was not invented by a single individual," Nichia President Eiji Ogawa wrote in a statement posted on the company's Web site. The business community breathed a huge sigh of relief, with Toyota chair Hiroshi Okuda, head of the Keidan-ren, Japan's leading business group, calling the amount "appropriate in light of common sense."

The court's concern for the company's bottom line is uniquely Japanese, says Robert Kneller, a U.S. intellectual-property lawyer on the faculty of the University of Tokyo. "I don't think any U.S. court would have said, 'According to the law, damages should be X, but that might hurt the competitiveness of the company; therefore we have to make a judgment ourselves.' " But he noted that the issue of fair compensation is so fuzzy in Japan that it creates problems for judges.

Regardless of the amount, the case may already have improved conditions for Japan's legions of engineers. "Engineers, like myself, think it was very good that this suit has prompted discussion about the low status of engineers," says Hiroyuki Yoshikawa, a former president of the University of Tokyo who is now president of Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology. AIST now awards researchers 25% of the royalties from their patents, Yoshikawa says, and many companies have modified their policies to give scientists a bigger bite of the fruits of their research.

-Dennis Normile

News Focus

Unless the government takes action, aging vessels, tight budgets, and rising demand could mean rough weather for U.S. marine scientists who need to go to sea

Grim Forecast for a Fading Fleet

Early this month, one of the world's most powerful ice breakers reached the U.S. research station at McMurdo Bay after smashing its way through the Antarctic ice pack. It's a familiar task for the candy-red, 122-meter-long Polar Star, which has been opening essential supply lanes to McMurdo for more than 30 years. But this year she's had to plow through some 200 kilometers of pack ice—nearly five times the usual distance—to reach the logistical hub of the U.S. Antarctic program. And she's done it without help from her customary companion, the twin icebreaker Polar Sea, which is idled indefinitely with age-related mechanical ailments.

Much more work, with fewer resources. Things aren't quite that bad for the U.S. science fleet as a whole—yet. But oceangoing scientists don't like what they see when they look out at the fiscal horizon. Over the next decade, a combination of aging vessels and scant funds for replacements could dramatically shrink the number of ships available for marine science just as new, large-scale research programs are expected to greatly boost demand. The mismatch "is making the ocean science community very nervous," says Robert Knox, an associate director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. "Unless we start building some new ships soon, the fleet will wither away."

Down to the sea

Ships have long played a central role in marine science, allowing researchers to do everything from track currents critical to understanding Earth's climate to sample life on the deep sea floor. For years observers have predicted that new technologies, from satellites to robotic submarines, will ultimately make ships obsolete. "But for the moment, if you want to do good science, there is no alternative to going to sea," says Dave Hebert, an oceanographer at the University of Rhode Island, Kingston.

To keep researchers sailing, the United States has funded the construction of a small armada of research ships. They range from nimble day-trippers that carry just a few researchers to massive floating laboratories able to sustain dozens of scientists for months at a time (see table, p. 340). Today, the loose-knit fleet boasts about 60 major ships (those longer than 20 meters). Many are owned and operated by the U.S. Navy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and other agencies.

Throughout the Cold War, the Navy was the most reliable source of funding for new research vessels. In return, it expected scientists to help predict conditions its ships would face at sea and find new ways to spot threats, such as Soviet submarines. But after the fall of the Berlin wall, the military's interest in marine science began to fade. Although other agencies have tried to fill the gap, none have had deep enough pockets to build many new ships, which can cost up to $100 million each, depending on their size and capabilities.

For most academic researchers, the key component of the fleet is the 27 ships that are operated by the University-National Oceano-graphic Laboratory System (UNOLS). A

coalition of 60-plus research institutions, UNOLS was formed in 1971 to help share ship time and costs. NSF provides about two-thirds of the $65 million needed each year to operate the UNOLS ships, with the Navy and NOAA supplying the balance.

Without a formal capital improvements budget, the UNOLS fleet is showing its age.

Twelve of the 17 largest UNOLS ships, for instance, are due to be removed from service by 2020, and several could retire as early as the end of this decade. And given the 10 years needed to design, fund, and build replacement ships, researchers don't have much time to spare. "The clock is ticking," says Knox.

Exactly what a new fleet should look like, however—and who should pay for it—has become an increasingly hot topic. Four years ago, a government body called the Federal Oceanographic Facilities Committee (FOFC) recommended building nine new large ships in three size classes by 2020 for the academic fleet. But it didn't specify who should pay for them. Academic scientists weren't entirely pleased with the recommendations, noting that even if the blueprint were followed, scheduled retirements would cause the fleet to shrink. UNOLS officials successfully argued for including three more "potential"

Crunch time. Two U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers clear a path through Antarctic sea ice.

The Ideal Research Vessel

Private crew berths

A contented crew can make for a more successful research cruise. Scientists say crew members should have their own cabins , and heads for privacy.

Heavy gear handling

A new generation of buoys, submersibles, and sensors demand heavy but sensitive winches and cranes to get them into the water—and back onto the ship.

Dynamic , positioning

Container space

Scientists are increasingly relying on "labs in a box"—laboratories and control stations set up inside large shipping containers—when they go to sea. But the containers require plenty of deck space.

Expandable sleeping quarters for scientists

Ships should have quarters that can handle a "surge" of extra occupants, say scientists, so that the same ship can accommodate from five to 35 scientists.

Multibeam sonar

A new generation of sonars is giving researchers unprecedented abilities to map the sea floor. But hulls have to be specially designed to handle the equipment.

Dynamic positioning

Special thrusters fore and aft help hold the ship in a specific position or maneuver to follow tethered submersibles or other equipment along the bottom.

Making waves. The science of going to sea is always evolving.

ships in the group's final report. Insiders dubbed the added UNOLS vessels the "gray ships," corresponding to the color used for them in one key chart that displayed the FOFC-backed ships in black.

Whatever their shades, few of the recommended ships have acquired the most important color of all: green. "Unfortunately, [the plan] has not yet been funded or implemented," notes a congressionally mandated report on U.S. ocean policy that came out last fall (oceancommission.gov). The pending lack of ships, the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy added, threatens to "hinder the conduct of research."

It's not for lack of interest. NSF is hoping to make room in its budget over the next few years for three smaller "regional class" vessels, at a cost of about $30 million each. The schedule, however, will most likely be disrupted if NSF's budget, which Congress cut this year, fails to rebound. NSF has already stretched out its timetable to refit an ocean drilling vessel after receiving only $15 million of the $40 million it requested to start the work, which will cost an estimated $100 million. At the same time, Senate appropriators reminded NSF last summer that they expect it to ask for $50 million in 2006 to start building a new flagship for Arctic marine science.

Other agencies are also trying to stand up for the fleet. The Navy's Office of Naval Research is trying to scare up funds to build one of the plan's biggest ships, a $75 million "global" ship capable of staying at sea for months. But the ongoing cost of the Iraq War has slowed their progress, Navy officials say. Still, there have been some successes: The National Marine Fisheries Service is buying up to four new trawlers for fisheries surveys, and the Navy recently donated one of its ships to NOAA for its Ocean Exploration program. Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the University of Delaware are also getting new research ships, drawing on a mix of government funding and other sources.

g Pleas for more additions could get | a boost in the fall, when FOFC is due | to issue updated recommendations 8 for the entire spectrum of federally g funded ships. "We're considering the | whole national fleet, not just the aca-KHEdemic ships," says FOFC chief » Robert Winokur ofthe Navy. But Winokur has already warned researchers that they may not j= like everything the committee will say about g the UNOLS fleet. "The message I gave £ UNOLS is that we need to develop a plan that j= is tied to realistic budgets," he says. Knox, ij meanwhile, predicts that the UNOLS

response will be guided by "what the science requires. ... The community won't be asking for Cadillacs and gold faucets."

One key issue will be predicting how many "ship days" researchers will need. The current annual number of 3600 could grow significantly if Congress funds current proposals to build several major ocean observing systems, including one that aims to cover an entire tectonic plate with cabled sensors. Contrary to predictions that such robotic sensors could reduce the demand for ships, deploying and maintaining these systems will actually increase demand for large ships able to operate in deep seas and handle heavy equipment, a recent UNOLS report con-

cluded. And even if ship use doesn't grow, a separate UNOLS analysis suggests that retirements could eat away at available ship time in just 5 years if no new ships are built (see graph, left).

The best way to avoid the crunch, it concludes, is to build all 12 of FOFC's black and gray ships. A less costly alternative would be to upgrade vessels or delay their retirement dates, UNOLS and Navy officials note. Extending by 5 years the life of 11 UNOLS ships over 40 meters long, for instance, would cost just $1 million to $5 million per ship, the group estimates.

But there's a price to pay for that penury. Aging ships are generally more expensive to maintain and often can't be equipped with the state-of-the-art sonars, submersibles, and navigation systems that are becoming must-haves for marine scientists. They are also more likely to break down. "What happened with the icebreakers is a lesson we don't want to repeat," says Knox.

Chilling costs

The icebreakers also offer a warning about the high cost of ship repairs and the need to plan as far ahead as possible. White House officials are pondering the fate of the 3-decade-old Polar Sea, now moored alongside a pier in its home port of Seattle, Washington. Coast Guard officials say that years of battling ice up to 5 meters thick have taken their toll. Two of its three massive engines are worn out and have been condemned.

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