INSIGHTS INTO THE WORLD / Revamping science strategy a matter of survival

Ryoji Noyori / Special to The Yomiuri Shimbun (Jan. 24, 2011)

In December, Prime Minister Naoto Kan congratulated Ei-ichi Negishi, a distinguished professor at Purdue University in the United States, and Akira Suzuki, a professor emeritus at Hokkaido University, on receiving the 2010 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. At the time, Kan emphasized: “The development of Japan has been underpinned by the outstanding power of science and technology. I would like to take this opportunity to make greater endeavors for the further development of science and technology.”

I really am looking forward to seeing him live up to his word. In science and technology, Japan will continue to encounter fierce international competition not only at the individual level but also at the national level. It is no exaggeration to say that the continued existence of Japan as a sovereign state will be in peril without a high-caliber national policy, backed by rock-solid measures to transform the flashes of individual inspiration in the basic sciences into cutting-edge technology that will eventually lead to new social values that will strengthen and benefit Japan as a whole.

If Yoichiro Nambu, a naturalized U.S. citizen who is a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, is included, 15 Japanese have received the Nobel Prize in three scientific fields–physics, chemistry and physiology or medicine–since the prize was first awarded in 1901. Nine of these people became Nobel laureates in just the last decade, making Japan the second-most prolific Nobel Prize-winning nation over the said period, after the United States with its 38 laureates. This would seem to indicate that the Japanese people have a relatively high aptitude for the natural sciences.

Many of the Japanese Nobel laureates in the natural sciences were recognized for achievements dating back more than 30 years. I strongly hope Japan’s remarkable presence in the world of science will be sustainable in the future.

Of the 15 Japanese Nobel laureates, five left Japan for the United States or another destination when they were young. I pay tribute to their courage to choose to cut off the path of retreat and dedicate the rest of their lives to working as scientists in foreign countries, but this also reminds me of the poor circumstances surrounding scientists in Japan about 40 years ago.

There are no national boundaries in science. Therefore, scientists often move to other parts of the world. I wonder how soon we will see the day when a foreign scientist conducting research in Japan becomes a Nobel laureate. Only when this happens will Japan be able to boast of being a genuinely science-oriented nation.

Rejuvenate higher education

The advent of a knowledge-based globalized society has inevitably accelerated a kind of “brain circulation.” No single country can provide a full range of opportunities for human resources development. Today, every country needs to offer higher education with universal relevance, while also preserving the unique characteristics of that nation. Regrettably, higher education in Japan does not yet satisfy that international standard.

The British publication Times Higher Education has listed 27 universities in Asia among the top 200 in its World University Rankings for 2010. Only five are Japanese institutions–the University of Tokyo ranked 26th, and Kyoto University ranked 57th. The world rankings named six universities in China and four each in Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea.

Some people blame Japan’s poor showing in the Times Higher Education survey on a failure to internationalize. Indeed, non-Japanese account for only 3.6 percent of all teachers at Japanese universities and other higher academic institutions. Even at the University of Tokyo, regarded as the country’s iconic higher education institution, only 4.1 percent of the teaching staff and 9.8 percent of the students are from abroad.

To rejuvenate higher education in Japan, it is essential to allocate public funds in line with international norms. Otherwise, this country will soon be out of the international competition. Currently, Japan spends the equivalent of 0.6 percent of its gross domestic product on higher education, the least among the member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The Japanese public is not generally aware of the fact that Japan’s annual public spending on higher education falls about 3 trillion yen short of the OECD average of 1.2 percent of GDP.

However, it should be noted that public spending on higher education can be effective only if reforms are made to the national university system, introduced 60 years ago. Japanese universities are handicapped by bureaucratic walls erected by faculty councils and exclusive academic cliques, as well as totally inadequate laboratories that are far from encouraging to young researchers. Indeed, keeping intact outdated values and vested interests within the universities only hinders their human resources–the most important element in higher education and academic research–from becoming more diverse and mobile.

Graduate school reform in particular is essential. The purpose of graduate school is not to benefit teaching staff and students as individuals, but to nurture society’s intellectual wealth for the good of national and international communities. Graduate schools should be separated from undergraduate schools. Also, the traditional tendency to enroll as many students from the same university and undergraduate department as possible should be done away with. Instead, graduate schools should aim to limit internal intake quotas to about 30 percent of total enrollment, and to increase the proportion of foreign students to more than 20 percent. At the same time, financial support for graduate school students should be strengthened both qualitatively and quantitatively, so they can concentrate on their studies and research activities.

Threat of isolation

What seriously worries me of late is the unabated decline in the number of young Japanese studying abroad. While there are currently more than 2.5 million undergraduate students at Japanese universities, only about 13,000 Japanese are enrolled at universities in the United States, a cultural melting pot. This stark contrast shows the growing tendency among young Japanese people to withdraw from international society. Internationally minded people with doctorate degrees play a key role in facilitating the advance of science and technology. But only about 200 Japanese acquire doctorate degrees in the United States per year–about half the total for Taiwan and many African countries. The corresponding tallies for China, South Korea and India stand at about 4,400, 1,100 and 2,000, respectively. People from those three nations are cultivating invaluable connections with peers from many other parts of the world as they work alongside each other over a period of five to six years to attain their doctorate degrees.

In Japan, only 0.7 percent of the university graduates are foreigners. This is far below the 11 percent to 15 percent seen in Britain, France and the United States.

Society functions on the strength of human relationships. To ensure a sustainable future, Japan needs its words and deeds to be understood and supported by the international community. If the current situation continues, Japan is very likely to trap itself in a “Galapagos syndrome”–isolation from the rest of the world–in the areas of advanced medical research and development, experimental therapeutics, formulation of international standards, industrial-technology diplomacy and natural-resources diplomacy, among others

Can government ministries and agencies really devise world-class policies without engaging in direct dialogue and in-depth negotiations with a variety of foreign parties?

This nation’s domestically focused wage system and the inadequate social infrastructure tailored to foreigners are major impediments to Japan’s efforts to compete with other countries to attract talented people from around the world.

I would like young doctorate students to break away from the pursuit of closed, narrow-focus academic careers and instead seek to be actively engaged in society on a much wider scale. The leaders of this century will need the ability to unite diverse groups of people with diverse values; they should maintain pride in their own country’s culture while forging close connections with the rest of the world. Japan will need people with doctorate degrees and, needless to say, will need to provide them with attractive opportunities.

The academic field is fiercely competitive–it is very hard to find success in a sustainable position. Every year, about 6,000 people acquire doctorate degrees in science and engineering in Japan, with more than 10,000 postdoctoral fellows and an unspecified number of foreign doctoral candidates coming up behind them. Yet, each year there are only about 3,000 positions available as teachers at universities or researchers at public institutions. In light of this reality, it is natural that many scientists will leave Japan and pursue their ultimate career goals abroad.

The vastly expansive industrial world is particularly attractive. Unlike academia, where researchers mostly confine their work to their areas of specialty, the industrial world provides far greater opportunities to make social contributions through joint projects with many different colleagues, using cutting-edge expertise, and, if one is fortunate, contributing to innovative advances.

Furthermore, the areas of politics and government services, which require high-level and broad scientific knowledge, present more opportunities for people with doctorate degrees to pursue careers. In a speech at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in April 2009, President Barack Obama said, “Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment and our quality of life than it has ever been before.” He is assisted in formulating science and technology policies by the presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, cochaired by three prominent scientists, as well as by the member organizations of the National Academies.

Why, then, does such a huge gap exist between politics and science in Japan? The political world, irrespective of party lines, has a responsibility to present a resolute long-term vision–and a specific road map for realizing it–to ensure the survival of our country at a time of fierce international competition.

Firstly, the social and economic values that Japan should pursue must be clarified. And secondly, there needs to be a balance struck between independent top-flight research and supervision by a trustworthy national headquarters.

To that end, Japan needs a system to collect reliable information on science and technology from the rest of the world; capabilities to analyze that information and plan strategic initiatives; research infrastructure to serve as the engine of science and technology promotion; stronger national research institutions that play a key role in research and development efforts; effective collaboration between academia and industry; to recruit and nurture global-caliber human resources; and fiscal investment on a par with the international norm. Otherwise, our country will have no future.

Noyori won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2001. Since 2003, he has been president of RIKEN, a multifaceted science and technology research institute under the auspices of the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry.