As a result of a visit of DPA (German Press Agency)'s reporter to OIST the other day, many German-language media outlets featured OIST. The reporter met President Gruss, Professor Kuhn as well as a group of German PhD students at OIST. English translation of the original DPA article available at the bottom of this page.
Update: The Spanish press in the US loves OIST too:
Naha (dpa) - Unnoticed by the rest of the country, deep in the south of Japan surrounded by palm trees, beach and sea, a unique experiment to renew the former economic wonderland is ongoing. Far from the bureaucratic levers in Tokyo, the high-tech nation is enabling top scientists from all over the world to work on basic research at a still young university. With the help of top research and innovation, their goal is to prepare Japan and its economy, which is suffering from stagnation and structural problems, for the future.
"We are a small plant," says Peter Gruss. The Max Planck Institute's long-standing head was recently appointed president of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST), which was founded just five years ago. According to him, the Graduate University could one day become one of the world's leading centers for innovation, similar to what UK’s Cambridge is today. "We can help open Japan's science system," says Gruss, naming one of OIST's goals.
The research facility has the resources to do this. The state invested almost one billion euros in the foundation of OIST. Almost the whole budget is still financed by taxpayer funds. The graduate school is to take a new approach and to provide a solution for shortcomings in Japan's hierarchically structured academic institutions. Thus, the doctoral students at OIST work independently and interdisciplinarily instead of – as is more common – working as foot soldiers of their professors.
In addition, Japan's science needs to open up. Of the 50 professors and a good 100 students at OIST, almost 60 percent are foreigners. By contrast, at Japan's top university, Todai in far-away Tokyo, they are only about 10 percent. Over the next five years, Gruss intends to further double the number of professors and students.
And not only that: "We succeed in recruiting international top scientists," explains the cell biologist.
"We have optimal financial support here," says Bernd Kuhn. The German neurobiologist is one of the first scientists to join OIST. He researches with mice in the field of the optical measurement of brain signals, while next door a colleague is working with robots. Kuhn appreciates the interdisciplinary approach at the institute in addition to its good financial resources. Whether physicists, chemists, biologists, mathematicians or neuroscientists, the researchers work together door-to-door. "This would be very difficult in deadlocked structures", explains the researcher.
Several Nobel Laureates also sit on the institute’s highest governing body, the Board of Governors. Gruss would gladly attract more Japanese students, but young scientists in Japan have a hard time leaving the traditional structures of the country and orienting themselves internationally. However, changing this is not the only goal of OIST. The decisive factor will be whether it is possible to create a dynamic environment of innovation around OIST, says Gruss.
Once, Japanese companies were leaders of the global economy. Now they are fighting against the backdrop of a rapid aging population with shrinking market shares, growing inefficiency and diminishing innovative power. Despite the focus on exports and more and more debt-financed economic stimulus packages, the third largest global economy continues to suffer from stagnation even after decades and hardly exceeds a growth rate of around one percent. In order to make this change and help Japan to make real breakthrough innovations, what is needed apart from high-quality research, is an environment, which enables young entrepreneurs to start up innovative companies with risk capital, says Gruss.
OIST offers the former: high-quality basic research without which breakthrough innovation is impossible. However, what is still missing is the suitable "innovation ecosystem" with venture capital and a start-up culture in the style of Silcon Valley, says Gruss, who is also the chairman of the "Siemens Technology & Innovation Council" (STIC) in Germany. "In Japan, structures will have to become more efficient" in order to enable this to happen. In addition to the Japanese economy, the government in Tokyo is also responsible. It depends on the Japanese government whether OIST can actually follow the example of the British elite university Cambridge and become a world-leading innovation center – or will remain just an experiment.