Japan “will miss the boat” if it does not innovate and go global



The challenges of Japanese universities in attracting foreign talent and promoting the use of English in studies are well documented. Yet on an island hundreds of kilometers south of Tokyo, a small graduate school has achieved a level of internationalization and research impact almost unmatched in the country.

The Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, founded by the Japanese government ten years ago, produces a disproportionate amount of high-quality research for its size. It is one of the top 10 institutions in the world when the quality of research is standardized by scale, according to Natural index. It is also very internationalized, with 84% of its doctoral students and 63% of its professors coming from abroad.

“When I first arrived on campus from Germany, I thought to myself: ‘This is the most international place I have ever visited,’ said Peter Gruss, president of the ‘OIST. Times Higher Education.

Prof Gruss said the usual barriers to recruitment – such as language and location – have taken a back seat to what really motivates talented individuals: “An opportunity to achieve personal goals and achieve their goals. missions ”.

As long as the global research was conducted in English, as is the case at OIST, the native language of the country would not be more of a problem in Japan than in his native Germany, he said.

Prof Gruss, who ran the German company Max Planck for 12 years before joining OIST, said the key to his institution’s success was “high trust funding”. Each professor, even at the assistant level, benefits from five-year funding unrelated to a particular project or department. This freewheeling structure “allows researchers to do something unique.”

“Why would a professor come here?” Because they have forward thinking and risky ideas, and they don’t have to write a research grant to fund their work, ”he said.

The expansion of this funding structure – which is similar to that of the European Research Council – “could be a game-changer for Japan,” argued Prof Gruss. “You want to fund brains, not projects.”

OIST operates very differently from conventional Japanese universities, where funding is given to “generalist” projects and where young academics work at the behest of senior academics.

Professor Gruss cited as an example an assistant professor hired at the University of Tokyo by OIST. When asked why she would give up a good job at a legacy institution, she replied that she was “not treated much better than a post-doctoral fellow”.

“Young researchers in the Japanese university system cannot do independent research. They are there to support full professors, ”he said, adding that most Nobel Prize winners did their most pioneering work before the age of 40. “There is an urgent need to reform Japanese research universities by allowing young people to do the research they want, as soon as possible.

OIST accepts less than 100 doctoral students per year, with the largest foreign cohorts coming from India, Mainland China, Russia, United Kingdom and Taiwan. All receive full funding for five years.

“The best go to the best,” said Professor Gruss. “If you want to recruit highly qualified people, regardless of their level or function, you have to be aware that you are competing with the world. These people don’t grow on trees.

The government is well aware of its recent drop in rankings and search, especially compared to rising Asian competitors. In response, he announced this year that he would raise capital for a 10,000 billion yen (£ 65 billion) endowment fund for academic research, to be managed by the Japan Science and Technology Agency. technology.

However, Professor Gruss and other leaders in higher education have expressed doubts whether money alone will spur innovation. “Several analyzes have shown that the Japanese financing system is very inefficient,” he said.

The country was an innovation leader in the 1980s, when companies such as Sony, Panasonic, and Nintendo created imaginative and hugely popular products. These companies are still the engine of the world’s third-largest economy, but few new brands have retained this “entrepreneurial spirit”.

For example, despite being home to auto giants like Toyota and Honda, Japan has failed to keep up with the latest transportation trends. “They can make the best car, but they didn’t make the electric car – they missed this boat,” Professor Gruss said. This opportunity went in place of Tesla, based in Silicon Valley.

Professor Gruss still considers the United States to be the “absolute champion of innovation”, due to its top universities, abundant venture capital and large number of “unicorns” or start-ups of a worth at least $ 1 billion (£ 722 million). “They are extremely good at choosing the products that the whole world wants,” he said.

He added that “China is also extremely dynamic. It has formed a base for research, technology transfer and start-ups. In a few years, he could be at the top of the scientific community. He is a real competitor.

“If Japan does not recover, it will miss the boat,” he warned.




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