Japan’s innovative education for innovation

The country’s universities face many challenges, but publicly funded graduate programmes aim to keep the research breakthroughs coming, writes Hiroshi Amano

May 29, 2020
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Japan has become accustomed to winning Nobel prizes. Japanese academics, mostly based at Japanese universities, have been among the recipients of the prestigious awards each year since 2014. And yet, Japanese scholars are regularly warned that they might not continue winning Nobel prizes for much longer.

It is often argued in newspaper articles that the achievements of Japanese laureates were made 20 to 30 years ago, when both academia and industry in the country excelled in science and technology. Since then, however, the situation has changed. Academia and industry alike have stagnated in Japan, whereas they have rapidly progressed in other countries such as China and South Korea. As a result, the commentators conclude, Japan’s presence on the world stage is diminishing.

While it is no secret that Japan faces challenges to maintaining its lofty research position, steps are being taken at the national and the institutional level to improve the situation.

One of the most serious challenges is that, since 2004, state funding for operation costs at Japan’s national universities has decreased by 1 per cent every year, while the share of competitive funding has been increasing. As a consequence, universities can hire only fixed-term young researchers, resulting in a gradual decline in the number of scientific journal papers written by Japanese scientists. The proportion of people with a PhD in Japan is also shrinking, whereas it is growing in other major countries.

Meanwhile, the deteriorating financial situation of Japan’s large companies means that many can no longer afford to continue running the research institutes they had traditionally supported. Therefore, the number of scientific journal papers from industry has also been falling. In 1989, seven Japanese companies were among the top 10 in the world by market capitalisation. Almost 30 years later, in 2018, none of the top 10 companies is Japanese; eight are based in the US and two are in China. Many Japanese researchers in universities, industry and national institutes are trying to improve this situation.

In response to these challenges, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science launched several publicly funded programmes for educating graduate students. One of these is MEXT’s Doctoral Programme for World-leading Innovative & Smart Education (WISE Programme), which started in 2018. The WISE Programme is designed to support universities in establishing integrated five-year doctoral programmes with world-class education and research through collaboration with partners, such as other universities, research institutions and private businesses inside and outside Japan. Doctoral programmes supported by the WISE scheme must define the types of skills they will foster and the expertise they will create to lead efforts in resolving problems facing society. In this way, the WISE Programme aims to promote universities’ efforts to nurture outstanding postdoctoral researchers who will serve as engines in different sectors, take the lead in building and utilising new knowledge, create values that will lead the next generation, and tackle challenges to resolve social issues, thereby bringing about innovation in society.

Nagoya University is home to three of the 26 WISE Programmes established so far. One of them is our DII Collaborative Graduate Programme for Accelerating Innovation in Future Electronics, which launched in 2018 and is based on my own research experience. Gallium nitride (GaN)-based LEDs became widely used as lighting technology only 30 years after the main research breakthrough. Investors are not patient enough to wait that long for future product development. The DII programme aims to develop talent who can accomplish product innovation within a decade.

The scheme is designed to nurture three types of people who will play different roles in creating product innovation in future electronics:

  • Deployers – who will conceptualise innovative products to address social needs
  • Innovators – who will design and shape the final product, resolve technical challenges in its development and develop a viable production process
  • Investigators – who will be well versed in social issues and concerns and propose solutions.

Cooperation and collaboration between these three types of personnel is the key to accelerating innovation.

The DII programme is unlike a conventional PhD. Engineering students will study not only conventional engineering and science but also entrepreneurship, social science, patent issues, law, liberal arts and more. A key feature is the involvement of mentors from industry, including manufacturers, entrepreneurs and those working at national research institutes. Young researchers at Nagoya will also help students understand social issues and carry out collaborative research.

The students will take part in two internships. The first is a two-week programme that will connect students with peers in other countries. The second is a six-month programme. Deployer students will work at several different organisations to broaden their minds. Innovator students will work at companies to learn production. Investigator students will work with foreign research organisations to kick-start international collaboration.

Overall, the DII programme provides an unrivalled opportunity for enthusiastic students who want to apply their knowledge to generate innovation. And, with luck, the initiative and other WISE Programmes will ensure that Japan can continue to make major breakthroughs in research and development and keep winning Nobel prizes in the years to come.

Hiroshi Amano is professor of engineering at Nagoya University. He won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2014.

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Print headline: Innovative education for innovation

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