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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research Special Issue - August 2003   
 'Let’s be proud of our researchers'
 Research: a vocation
 Choosing a mentor
 Momentum to move
 Drawn to the USA
 Balancing the gender equation
 A boost for science
 University challenge
 Migrating to the private sphere
 The incorruptible Marie
 National associations of students, PhDs and researchers

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Title  Everyday life in Japan

The research field stretches far beyond the USA. Japan, which ranks number three worldwide in the R&D league, is particularly dynamic, with many opportunities for young researchers to pursue fascinating programmes. The German Jens Nieke is one of those who took the research route to Tokyo.

Jens Nieke
Jens Nieke
Jens Nieke, 36, an engineer in aeronautics and astronautics with a doctorate from Berlin's Technical University, is now a researcher at the National Space Development Administration of Japan (NASDA). 'It was hell at first. Living in a tiny room in the centre of Tokyo, problems with the language and culture. Unlike in other Asian countries, English is not widely spoken in Japan. That means you have to learn Japanese which takes a lot of time and effort. When people ask me what Japan is like, I reply: ‘difficult’. The solution is to find your own niche. We are fortunate to live on Daiba, a small island lying just outside the city and I cycle to work.' Nieke has married in Japan and has a five-month-old daughter, Lena. 

Tokyo, a metropolitan area of some 30 million inhabitants  measuring 100 km across, has a mind boggling population density, with 2 million commuters a day passing through the world's busiest station (Sinjuku).

'But Tokyo is a fascinating city. The people are friendly, positive and always busy. It is a reassuring city. The old and the new are found side by side, up to three generations can live under the same roof, and you can see temples dating back thousands of years standing alongside post-modern architecture. Japan is a laboratory for humankind's future – from space exploration programmes to robotics – including a case study on how to survive deflation, which is also beginning to rear its head in Europe.' 

In 2000, when he was a doctoral student in Berlin, Nieke also worked at the Deutschen Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR). 'It was when I was at this aerospace centre that I met a senior scientist from one of the NASDA Earth observation laboratories. It was he who invited me to come to Japan. The trip was made possible thanks to a grant from the European Inco programme for two years. I then continued my research with a post as visiting scientist.’

NASDA is the realisation of one of Japan's  ambitions. It is now the second country, after the United States, in terms of its space research budget, which stood at €2.5 billion in 2001. NASDA has been developing the Kibo module for the international space station and satellite systems. Nieke is working most notably on the Adeos-2 Earth observation satellite programme, whose precursor was launched in November 2002.

'I am studying the calibration and validation of the GLI (Global Imager) which is a key sensor for research on climate and studying the geophysical parameters of the oceans, the atmosphere, the continents and the cryosphere.' He also heads a European Space Agency project to compare the data supplied by the new European Envisat satellite and by Adeos-1 with those from other international probes.   

'Generally speaking, communication between the visiting scientists and their Japanese colleagues, who work very intensively, is not that easy. The visiting scientists are usually only in contact with their supervisor a few times a month. The atmosphere is different at NASDA, which recruits the best engineers and scientists from all over the country. They have often spent a year in the United States or Europe and are more open than their colleagues in other laboratories. The environment is, therefore, very pleasant. On the other hand, there is a very heavy workload because NASDA is embarking on an ambitious space programme with very few people. At the end of the day, this situation is very positive in terms of your career. We are able to work alone on a specific problem, when in the United States you would find about 30 researchers and in Europe about a dozen working on the same kind of question.’