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FEATURE
Einsteins on the Beach - Japan looks to a remote institute for a technological reboot. + By Lucille Craft

ONNA VILLAGE, OKINAWA, JAPAN — With its ferocious typhoons, sprawling U.S. military bases, and underachieving economy, Okinawa seems an unlikely beachhead for academic greatness. Yet here in a sleepy hamlet better known for seaweed and scuba diving, Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, has unveiled near the capital of its southernmost prefecture the country’s first truly international research institution, the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology.

This fall, an inaugural class of 34 doctoral students from half as many countries joined this graduate university, which harbors ambitions well beyond advanced science. Japan’s newest research university “isn’t just a stand-alone project,” says John Dickison, who manages buildings on the futuristic, eco-friendly campus. “This is the core of the rejuvenation of Japan – not just Okinawa.”

The school was first conceived by Koji Omi, the country’s powerful minister of science and technology in 2001 and 2002 who subsequently assumed the mantle of minister of finance. In 2001, he also served as minister of Okinawa, which helps explain his choice of site. Unique among institutions of higher education in Japan, OIST falls under the jurisdiction of the prime minister, not the Education Ministry.

“OIST could not happen if it was located on the main island,” says Hiroaki Kitano, a faculty member known as the “father” of Sony’s robot dog, who has helped guide this unusual project. Were OIST in a major Japanese city, Kitano reckons, the scrutiny and pressure to accommodate vested interests would have sealed its fate. But at a 1,000-mile remove from Tokyo, “OIST is so distant, I think many professors in existing universities thought this was a joke – a waste of money!” Kiyoshi Kurokawa, a science adviser to the Japanese cabinet and a frequent critic of the country’s higher education establishment (Prism, November 2012), agrees that locating OIST far from the center was essential to its mission. In Japan, he says, “change always comes from the periphery.”

By building from scratch in a neglected corner of the country, OIST’s founders say they’ve been able to capture what many other established colleges around the globe aspire to but fall short of – the ultimate “flat,” hierarchy-free university. “No one,” says OIST President Jonathan Dorfan, “really runs an educational research institution in the world like this.” While cross-disciplinary studies and collaboration-boosting schemes have become the sine qua non from Boston to Beijing, OIST represents one of the most radical efforts yet, and a dramatic departure from the entrenched silos at most Japanese universities.

Underwritten by Japanese taxpayers to the tune of $987 million, with about $130 million annually for operations, OIST has no departments. All professors – five of whom hold engineering degrees – make up a single faculty spanning 50 research units in neuroscience, biology, physics and chemistry, environmental and ecological sciences, and mathematical and computational sciences. The presence of so many non-Japanese is also a departure, though the mix has been carefully considered: Nearly 50 faculty and most students are foreign. The school seeks to eventually support about 100 students, equally balanced between Japanese and foreigners. Of the 260 researchers, a bit fewer than half are non-Japanese. The lingua franca in classes and across campus is English.

 

A coral larvae recruitment plate assembled and illustrated by an elementary student during OIST’s Open Campus
A coral larvae recruitment plate assembled and illustrated
by an elementary student during OIST's Open Campus

 

Housed on a bluff overlooking the azure East China Sea, “the experiment,” as faculty members call it, is designed at every turn to get its denizens to cross paths and their ideas to collide. Door-free labs, an art-filled entrance tunnel, and skywalks connecting labs and classrooms were designed to encourage mingling. The spartan décor of typical Japanese science departments has been replaced with pastels and wood paneling, giving labs the feel of a high-end medical suite. Office space is deliberately assigned to mix éminences grises with associate professors and nanoscientists with geneticists and physicists, so that, not unlike at a carefully planned party, specialists from unrelated fields gradually drop their inhibitions and geeky jargon to share ideas.

Response from OIST’s academics has been positive. “It’s much more fun,” says faculty Chairman Ulf Skoglund. “You don’t become too much of a nerd. It’s better if you have more language, if you can communicate with people who are not in your field. Collaboration is highly correlated to success.”

“I could put together a team consisting of information science, neurobiology, and robotics in the same group,” says Kenji Doya, a mathematical engineer turned neuroscientist who sports a spiky crew cut and has a passion for triathlons. Head of the neural computation unit, he shows off his latest progeny, a small herd of
cyber-rodents that mimic animal behavior. “Such highly interdisciplinary work,” he says, “is very difficult to do anywhere in the world.”

Across campus, scholars from marine biophysics and quantum wave microscopy have joined forces to create a prototype windmill powered by ocean currents. Evolutionary biologist Alexander Mikheyev ended up lending his expertise in DNA and protein composition to an art conservator. She was trying to restore a century-old Okinawan musical instrument known as the sanshin, a kind of banjo, but was flummoxed over which creature’s hide she was dealing with.

“If you’re an evolutionary biologist, you’d [tend to] interact with other evolutionary biologists,” says Mikheyev, noodling with a music stand under his desk and wearing a T-shirt that reads Take me To Your Cluster. “You’d never talk to ecologists. Here you can have lunch with a physicist or scientists who don’t even do traditional research.”


“This Is Heaven”

Students are jolted out of their academic comfort zones, too, required to rotate through coursework outside their expertise. Sakurako Watanabe, 25, a Japanese student with a startlingly thick brogue – the byproduct of a neuroscience degree obtained in Scotland – laughs nervously as she confronts her mandated course load of physics next semester: “I have no idea what I’m going to do! The last time I did physics was in high school.” But for those who chafe at the confines of conventional majors, the freewheeling air of OIST can be intoxicating. Egyptian Mohamed Abdelhack, 23, an electrical engineering major pursuing the “brain-computer interface” and now training in biology, is a poster child for the school’s silo-free curricula. “This,” he says, “is heaven.”

About a third of the students hail from life-science backgrounds, another third from the physical sciences. Eight have an engineering background. Applicants undergo an intense vetting process, including interviews on the Okinawa campus. Faculty chairman Skoglund says candidates “should have a genuine interest in science – not just a job.” While graduate education typically involves students assisting in an adviser’s research, OIST “wouldn’t be a good place for someone who likes to follow instructions for five years,” says Mikheyev. Favored are self-starters who “take basic science and find applications for it.”

Attracting renowned professors to a place most would have trouble locating on a map proved to be less of a hard sell than administrators had originally feared. With guaranteed research funds, lighter teaching loads, and state-of-the-art lab equipment, Skoglund says they needed little persuading. A specialist in cryo-electromicroscopy, which involves 3-D reconstructions of molecules, Skoglund had seen the budget dwindle at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, his home institution. “I couldn’t even get money to hire a postdoc,” he says. Comments OIST’s Dorfan, a renowned particle physicist who arrived in late 2009 after serving as director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center: “The notion that there’s still an opportunity to have strong support for independent ideas, for discovery-oriented science... the opportunities are dwindling around the world.”

 

Boondoggle or Future Promise?

With the highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the industrialized world, Japan, of course, is hardly immune to financial realities. But Dorfan says the school’s heavy government subsidies are secure for at least 10 years, until it can begin to attract grants on its own. “The commitment by the Japanese government is obviously strong,” he says dryly, “or we wouldn’t be here.”

While OIST has hit its initial targets of securing funds, well-known professors, and a strong entering class, its mission to help turn around the struggling island of Okinawa is more daunting. Forty years after its reversion from U.S. occupation, and despite public injections of well over $100 billion, Okinawa still ranks next to last in per capita income of 47 prefectures as of 2009, the latest figure available. It has the country’s worst rate of unemployment and divorce, and supports one of the highest numbers of welfare recipients. In scores for primary and secondary scholastic achievement, Okinawa ranks dead last.

In 2010, a Businessweek column dismissed OIST as “Okinawa’s Doomed Innovation Experiment.” The effort to build a Silicon Valley-type industrial high-tech cluster, it argued, was destined to become just another bureaucratic boondoggle without comprehensive measures such as free-trade incentives, an upgrade of the public education system, and a hands-off approach from government.

“We understand what all the hurdles are,” says Dorfan, one of the few staff at OIST who favor buttoned-down shirts, eschewing the unofficial school uniform of sandals, T-shirts, and kariyushi, Okinawa’s answer to the Aloha shirt. He notes that it took decades for a robust industrial cluster to form around Stanford. Success, he says, “is by no means an unreasonable expectation.”

Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons OIST could impart is something it doesn’t take pains to advertise. High-skilled, foreign-born immigrants have been vital to the success of engineering and tech start-ups in the United States, accounting for a quarter of all high-tech ventures in America. By contrast, Japan remains hampered by its homogenous society and an ingrained resistance to immigration, despite a fast-shrinking and graying population. If OIST can be nurtured as a successful international research center, its example could help shake up Japanese academe and put the country on an innovation track.

 

Lucille Craft is a freelance print and broadcast journalist based in Tokyo.


All photographs courtesy of Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology



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