Research waning at small state schools (Nov.5) Jun Sugimori / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer

U.S.-based scientist Osamu Shimomura, who got his start at what is now Nagasaki University, shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, becoming the first Japanese hailing from a regional second-tier state university to be awarded the prestigious prize.

Shimomura, 80, who won the prize for his discovery of green fluorescent protein in jellyfish, was a student and later a researcher in what is now the department of pharmacy at the state-run university in Nagasaki Prefecture.

His winning of the Nobel Prize spells out anew that the nation has a broad base for science. But the foundation for education and research at regional state-run universities has been undermined by the state policy of “selection and concentration.”

A boastful banner hangs from a building on the campus of the university’s department of pharmacy that reads: “Congratulations to Dr. Osamu Shimomura for being named a winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.”

“It’s great. I thought that the Nobel Prize had been a thing in a different world from ours. I want to study harder than I did,” said an excited Yuji Kunihira, 21, a junior, as he began an experiment in a natural product chemistry research laboratory.

“A really important discovery can be made out of intellectual curiosity as shown by Dr. Shimomura, who wondered why jellyfish are luminous,” Shigeru Katamine, 58, president of the university, said. “His winning [of the Nobel Prize] was inspiring for students and young researchers. The emergence of a Nobel Prize-winner from a regional [state-run] university will contribute to enhancing Japan’s science and technology level.”

State subsidies for national universities have been decreasing by 1 percent each year for several years. Amid such circumstances, unspectacular and fundamental fields of research at regional universities have been pushed far from the limelight.

Nagasaki University’s department of pharmacy in April last year closed a 15,000-square-meter medicinal botanical garden it operated at the tip of the Nagasaki Peninsula because it could not eke out operating expenses. Part of the facility will still be used by the university’s Institute of Tropical Medicine, but the garden has become overgrown with weeds, and spider webs can be seen everywhere.

The university has allotted about 2.5 million yen a year to the department of pharmacy for education and research expenses at research laboratories. In the research laboratory of Prof. Kenichiro Nakajima, 61, there is no air conditioner available even in summer. The lab tries to eliminate as much waste as possible to eke out expenses for purchase of reagents and animals for use in experiments for 27 students.

“Mr. Shimomura’s winning [of the Nobel Prize] is an encouragement for us,” Nakajima said. “I often felt sorry that we could not provide enough funds for students, but I’d like to believe that a flexible way of thinking can be created by using our ingenuity even under a tight budget. But the fact remains that Shimomura could make such an achievement because he went overseas.”

Prof. Tadashi Yoshimoto, 63, expressed sympathy for young researchers, saying that they are “not provided enough time to devote themselves to a challenging subject.”

Yoshimoto has developed an agent from an enzyme of a microorganism sampled from the precincts of Horyuji temple in Nara that is widely used to observe kidney function.

“When I was a young researcher, there was plenty of time to be spent to challenge a new theme with an innovative approach and there were periods in which I could not submit a thesis for a long time,” Yoshimoto recalled. “But with the introduction of the fixed-term system, research has to produce results within a short period.”

Few students advance to the university’s doctoral programs devoted to research. Some doctoral students are allotted 280,000 yen a year to serve as research assistants. But the amount is far lower than 540,000 yen–equivalent to a yearly tuition fee–that is provided to all doctoral students at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

Of 53 doctoral students at Nagasaki University, 19 are working people and 12 are from overseas.

Taishiro Minato, 27, a second-year student in the doctoral program, said, “I don’t deny I feel uneasy as there are few superiors or fellow students around me who are pursuing the same path as mine.”

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Gap widening with top schools

 

Statistically speaking, the weakening of the education and research foundations of regional state-run universities has been emerging for some time.

The number of scientific papers published in international magazines is sometimes used as a yardstick to measure a university’s research capabilities. Prof. Masamitsu Negishi, 63, of the National Institute of Informatics, sorted through the Thomson Reuters database and found that the number of papers submitted by researchers from regional state-run universities has been increasing, but the gap between the numbers of theses submitted by those at seven former imperial universities (currently top-notch state-run universities) plus the TIT and by those at 78 other state-run universities has been widening.

The number of papers published by the seven top-tier national universities plus the TIT accounted for 52.5 percent of 60,482 pieces published by all national universities across the country in 2006.

The drop in the number of theses published by researchers of second-tier state universities is remarkable in the field of clinical medicine. This is partly because there have been fewer young doctors training at university hospitals since the system was introduced in fiscal 2004 to make it mandatory for newly licensed physicians to train for two years at a private hospital.

According to a survey conducted by Mie University President Nagayasu Toyoda, the number of published theses has declined by more than 20 percent in 11 regional state-run universities since the law to make national universities incorporated institutions took effect in 2003. The 11 universities include such core regional state universities as Hirosaki, Niigata, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Due to the education ministry’s policy of “selection and concentration,” the budget to strengthen the foundation for education and research at second-tier state universities has been cut while an increasing amount of competitive research spending has been allocated intensively to the eight top-rate national universities consisting of seven former imperial universities and the TIT.

State subsidies in fiscal 2007 for science and research to these top-notch universities accounted for half of all such subsidies allocated to all universities, including private ones, in the country and amount to 1.8 times the total figure for the remaining state-run universities.

According to Toyoda, such a concentration of science and research budgets on the eight top-rate state universities could prove counterproductive.

“Amid a decrease in the amount of allocated personnel and money, the regional state-run universities have struggled to their limits and the adverse effects are now being felt beyond the medical department to other faculties,” Toyoda said. “If the regional state-run universities that have sustained the broad base of the nation’s science and technology weaken, the nation’s overall competitive power will decline, reducing Japan to a third-tier state in terms of science and technology.”

(Nov. 5, 2008)
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