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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

OIST: Japanese University Looks To Break Down Barriers To Good Science

Welcome to the rabbit hole.

Gone are the days of the multi-talented specialist—when one who wanted to dissect a body not only did the cutting, but perhaps also went and did the graveyard-robbing for a cadaver.

For the past 200 years, scientists have moved to become more of a specialist in their field—someone who only knows how to split an atom to create nuclear fire, but has no idea how to make coffee or what the effects of his atomic splitting might cause a living test subject. "I'm just a theorist! Besides... man would never use my invention for warfare!"

So... imagine my surprise when I recently discovered that Japan, a country with a very stiff hierarchy of the academics has broken away from tradition. Usually in Japan if you ask someone why they are doing something in a particular manner, they answer that it is because that is always the way it has been done.

It's a weird way if thinking - especially since Japan does think outside the box with many of its great (for example) robotics inventions, or just plain old wacky creations like a device to prop your head up so that it doesn't flop around while you sleep on the train.

Now... imagine, if you will, Japanese scientists not working alone, or with like minded thinkers (like only chemists) but working with a cadre of fellow scientists from a variety of different fields? The result? Well... we'll have to wait and see...

Welcome to the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) graduate university - a new way of thinking for Japanese scientists.

Just look at the locale—Okinawa. This is a small, subtropical island that is closer to Taipei and Shanghai than it is to Tokyo. Described as a Dali-esque building overlooking the East China Sea built on a forested hilltop, there are no beatnik clubs and coffee houses—well, maybe a couple—but there are more signs posted about warning the unwary of the copious number of poisonous snakes that are nearby.

OIST, which was inaugurated on November 19, 2011, is, beyond its locale, landscape and architecture, a very interesting concept. For one thing, there are no departments. Think of the place as one large skunk works, where geeky biologists, geeky chemists, geeky physicists, geeky mathematicians and computer geeks (they are a different breed) all intermingle (ewww), sharing the laboratory equipment (play nice, geeks!), teachers (I'm telling teacher you spilled plutonium!) and money (gimmee your lunch money!).

See Fukuoka? That's the southwestern part of Japan. Okinawa is further SW.
One of the reasons for placing OIST on Okinawa is that it is far away from the prying eyes of Tokyo and its center of government, but still close enough for a missile strike if one of their evil scientists doesn't get his 1,000,000 yen (Cdn/US $12,250). But really, it was to place the university as far away as possible from Japan's over-bearing academic center... to provide its student thinkers a bit of freedom. Also, in case things go horribly, horribly wrong with an experiment, either the project can be buried, or its victims, and there won't be any rampaging lizards knocking down towers and stomping on any gaijin English teachers - well, not too many, anyway.

Seriously, though... at this academic skunk works, if a project or experiment fails, it gets buried quietly. (Very little media). If it's a success, the project can continue to fulfillment - fully formed from its embryonic stage, and ready to take over from homo sapiens.

This is not a poor, little university. The government is involved - to the tune of some ¥77 billion (~ Cdn/US $943 million) over the past six years to create OIST. As well, there are a lot of academics involved: 212 researchers and, on its Board of Governors, five Nobel laureates (Sydney Brenner, Susumu Tonegawa, Jerome Friedman, Tim Hunt, Yuan-Tseh Lee). But no students yet.

However, beginning in the autumn of 2012, 20 students will begin their lessons, though it is expected to rise to 100 students over the next five years—probably as it allows 20 students in a year to study for five years. If my math is correct (must show the work: 20 students times 5 years equals 100 students over 5 years), that is 100 students! OIST was right with the math! So far, they are off to a great start!

Aside from the five Nobel laureates mentioned above, the OIST board of governors consists of:
  • Lord Martin Rees, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge 
  • Akito Arima, Japan Science Foundation Chairman
  • Ichiro Kanazawa, Former president of the Science Council of Japan
  • Kiyoshi Kurokawa, Former special cabinet advisor in charge of Science, Technology and Innovation
  • Hiroko Sho, Director of the Okinawa Learning Center
  • Jonathan Dorfan, President-Elect of OIST and Previous Director of Stanford Linear Accelerator Center
  • Robert Baughman, CEO of OIST and Past associate director for Technology Development at NINDS
  • Rita Colwell, Past president of the American Institute of Biological Sciences
  • Hiroshi Komiyama, Mitsubishi Research Institute chairman
  • Cherry Murray, Dean of the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
  • K. VijayRaghavan, advisory committee member of Janelia Farm Research Campus
  • Takeshi Yasumoto, Senior research manager of the Academic-Industry Collaboration for Okinawa Coastal Lines, MEXT
Eggheads all, and if I was smart enough, I might know who some or all of them were. Actually, I am smart enough. I'm a classic under-achiever despite my 149 IQ. Under-achiever is so... harsh. I prefer the term 'slacker'. And who doesn't enjoy a fine pair of slacks? Still... the positions held by these individuals sounds quite impressive.

Welcome to OIST!
OIST president Jonathan Dorfan—a physicist who was working at Stanford University before being lured by good money, a great opportunity, and hopefully a non-fear of poisonous snakes—says that OIST is looking to tackle three problems in Japanese science.
  1. To nurture independent thought in young researchers, and to encourage them to work for themselves rather than as foot soldiers for professors; 
  2. To have Japanese science become more open to the outside world (which, if you will pardon the editorial intrusion is kind of weird when you consider the facility is set so far away from the rest of the world—but, I know what they mean to do);
  3. To stimulate the emergence of technology clusters in a country where there is disturbingly little interaction between universities and industry.

Japanese students graduating in sciences and engineering has fallen off recently. While students everywhere often have to pay lip-service to the draconian university department heads, it seems to be taken to a higher degree in Japan's universities. As such, few want to go into such fields of academica. Now, there is the possibility that if one were really interested in sciences and didn't want to do it in Japan, they could always study abroad... but even that is not happening very often.

Between 1996 and 2007, 28 per cent of the science and engineering doctorates awarded in America went to Chinese; 11 per cent to Indians; nine per cent to South Koreans; and seven per cent to Taiwanese.

Japan? Only 2 per cent.

Researcher with zebra fish in a plethora of small tanks at OIST.
So... with Japanese science students apparently on the wane, OIST is looking for the best and brightest young minds in the world - hence the school's president. In fact, 85 of the OIST’s researchers are foreigners (gaijin).

Stop sucking air through your teeth, Japan. This is a good thing.

It provides an opportunity to have people not-Japanese provide ideas not rooted in the Japanese educational system.

In fact, OIST plans on having a decent 50:50 split of faculty and students from Japan and elsewhere.

As mentioned, everyone shares the resources: labs, microscopes, particle accelerators (not sure if they have one, actually) - but everything. That means everyone works together. Not only other forms of science, but other cultures. Welcome to wonderland, Japan.

Now... study your ass off and try not to create some mutant disease that will turn most of the world's population into flesh-eating zombie caricatures from Alice in Wonderland.

By Andrew Joseph


  1. Thanks Andrew! I hope you'll come by for a visit if you're ever in Okinawa.

  2. Hey Shawna! thanks for writing! What do you do there? I really am impressed with the facility! Do you really offer tours? Is it not a fairly secure facility with pass cards and the like?
    I would love to hear what type of research or experiments the folks there are hoping to discover and test out!