Japan ‘will miss the boat’ if it doesn’t innovate and go global

Remote research institute acts as model for cross-border innovation

August 12, 2021
A man observes a ship passing under the Rainbow Bridge in Tokyo, Japan as a metaphor for Japan ‘will  miss the boat’  if it doesn’t  go global
Source: Getty

Japanese universities’ challenges in attracting overseas talent and promoting the use of English in scholarship are well documented. Yet, on an island hundreds of miles south of Tokyo, a small graduate school has achieved a level of internationalisation and research impact almost unmatched in the country.

Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, founded by the Japanese government a decade ago, produces a disproportionate amount of high-quality research for its size. It is one of the world’s top 10 institutions when research quality is normalised by scale, according to Nature Index. It is also highly internationalised, with 84 per cent of its PhD students and 63 per cent of its faculty coming from overseas.

“When I first stepped on campus, coming from Germany, I thought, ‘This is the most international place I’ve ever visited,’” Peter Gruss, OIST’s president, told Times Higher Education. 

Professor Gruss said that the usual hurdles to recruitment – such as language and location – took a back seat to what really drives talented individuals: “An opportunity to reach personal goals and realise their missions.”

So long as global research was being conducted in English, as it is at OIST, the country’s native language would be no more of an issue in Japan than in his native Germany, he said.

Professor Gruss, who led Germany’s Max Planck Society for 12 years before joining OIST, said that the key to his institution’s success was “high-trust funding”. Every professor, even at the assistant level, is given five years of financing unlinked to any particular project or department. This freewheeling structure “allows researchers to do something unique”.

“Why would a professor come out here? Because they have cutting-edge, risky ideas, and they are not being required to write a research grant to finance their work,” he said.

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

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

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

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

OIST accepts fewer than 100 doctoral candidates a year, with the largest foreign cohorts coming from India, mainland China, Russia, the UK and Taiwan. All receive full funding for five years.

“Top people go to top people,” Professor Gruss said. “If you want to recruit highly qualified people – regardless of their level or job – you need to be aware that you are competing with the world. These people do not grow on trees.”

The government is well aware of its recent slide in rankings and research, especially compared with rising Asian competitors. In response, it announced this year that it would raise capital for a ¥10 trillion (£65 billion) endowment fund for university research, to be managed by the Japan Science and Technology Agency.

However, Professor Gruss and other higher education leaders have expressed doubt about whether cash alone will spur innovation. “Several analyses have shown that the Japanese funding system is highly inefficient,” he said.

The country was an innovation leader in the 1980s, when companies such as Sony, Panasonic and Nintendo created imaginative and wildly popular products. Those firms still drive the world’s third-largest economy, but few new brands have continued that “entrepreneurial spirit”.

For example, despite being home to automotive giants such as Toyota and Honda, Japan could not keep up with the latest transportation trends. “They can make the best car, but they did not make the electric car – they missed that boat,” Professor Gruss said. That opportunity went instead to Silicon Valley-based Tesla.

Professor Gruss still considers the US the “absolute champion for innovation”, because of its top universities, plentiful venture capital and large number of “unicorns”, or start-ups worth at least $1 billion (£722 million). “They are extremely talented at choosing products that the whole world wants,” he said.

He added that “China is also enormously dynamic. It has built up a foundation for research, technology transfer and start-ups. In a few years, it could be on top of the science community. It’s a real competitor.

“If Japan doesn’t get its act together, it will miss the boat,” he warned.


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