Aiming for Top Level in the World [Kinyu Facsimile Shimbun]

TOP Interview – Kinyu Facsimile Shimbun

Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University
President Peter Gruss

Can you tell me the progression of events that led to you becoming the president of OIST?

Dr. Gruss: I became interested in OIST when I was first approached by a headhunting company. At the time I had just stepped down as the president of the Max Planck Society, one of the world’s leading academic research organization. When I tried to find out as much as I could about OIST on the Internet, I noticed that OIST had been developing for itself many of the factors that attributed to the success of the Max Planck Society. That was when I decided to come to OIST. As the face of OIST, not just inside the university, but to the outside world such as the local community, Onna Village, Okinawa Prefecture, and industry academia, both domestically and internationally, I am willing to develop relationships with all kinds of stakeholders to lead OIST to further success.

What has changed since you became the President of OIST?

Since it was first proposed in 2001, I feel our philosophy has raised OIST’s value and also acted as a key factor in leading OIST to success. The founders of OIST had worked thoroughly to create the foundation for OIST’s success. After I joined OIST, I made some changes in governance, ways of recruitment and evaluation, and selectiveness. I am confident that OIST is rising to the top level in global standards. This year we have just announced the strategic plan for 2020-2030.

What do you focus on the most in terms of governance?

The board of governors is where the most important discussions are held for the future of OIST. There are many discussions by the board to think about what is best for OIST in moving forward. At the time that I joined, I proposed to add two Nobel Laureates to the board. One of the most important tasks for myself is to propose an essential strategy and the path OIST should take in the future. Also, OIST has several committees. One of these committees, consisting of world-class scientists, provides consultation on what kind of research OIST should proceed with. In addition, there is an external peer review for such proposals that analyzes the current situation of OIST and makes suggestions for the future. We invite board members to come to OIST to have them evaluate OIST in its entirety. Many of these committees’ members are top scientists in the world, including some Nobel Laureates and I feel as a result that we receive the most qualified evaluations. The ranking that OIST has achieved is also something that has changed the way Japanese citizens and politicians as well as people in other parts of the world view OIST. Last year OIST ranked ninth in the world, top in Japan, for the most high-quality science publications according to Springer Nature, a publisher of Nature magazine. I believe that OIST was able to achieve this because we recruited the best scientists and faculty members in the world. Last year, we had 1,544 applications from which we chose 18 talented people. This shows the rising interest towards OIST. Over 60% of the OIST faculty are foreigners and I believe that recruiting top scientists from around the world can ensure OIST will continue to produce cutting edge science research.

It feels very different from other Japanese universities.

There are several differences between the traditional national universities in Japan and OIST, and governance is one of it. At OIST, the president is elected by the board, not by the faculty members. When the faculty members name their president, they may choose a candidate that is convenient for them. However, when the board names the president, they can think more objectively of who is the best fit for OIST overall, which makes a big difference in terms of governance.

The second reason is “high trust funding.” OIST provides enough budget to faculty members to allow them to research with some flexibility. This is important because it allows researchers to be more creative in their research. Our ratio of public research grants is around 5-7%. These are the reasons why OIST can have competitive, cutting edge research. When you compare Japan and other high-tech countries in terms of research output, you find Japan to be quite inefficient.

In Japan, grant bodies control a huge proportion of the national budget for science and technology. These grants tend to ignore creative research applications. Applying for grants and what is produced in research are directly related. In order to obtain a grant, it is necessary to do research that is recognized as being mainstream, and that poses a difficulty for researchers who want to forge brand new research. OIST invests in people, not the research project; Therefore, we provide the budget for our best people. The best people here are the researchers with the ability to come up with creative research projects.

I hear from elsewhere that OIST can do great research because it is well funded. What do you think of this opinion?

Comparing traditional Japanese universities with OIST is not a fair comparison. The ratio of subsidy of most Japanese national universities are 50-60%, but they also have another source of income via tuition from students and money from university hospitals. OIST does not have these sources of income, therefore it is not fair to compare OIST with traditional universities.

OIST’s reputation is spreading all over the world. What are your goals and ambitions?

OIST has high performance, but it is still very small in terms of scale. At OIST, there are 80 faculty members, while the University of Tokyo has more than 1,200, so you can understand how small OIST is. We need to expand more to make a bigger impact on society. We have the California Institute of Technology in the U.S. as our reference point. With 300 faculty members, it is making an incredible impact in academia with many cases of technology transfers.

We aim to build up a wonderful university by combining various things. First, we want to strengthen the recruitment and have 100 faculty members by 2023. We aim to expand to 200 faculty members in 10 years. As OIST grows, we will be able to hire researchers in fields important to Japan. For example, in the field of cyber-security, it is said that Japan lacks 200,000 cyber-security personnel.

Another focus is to expand upon the study of infectious diseases by hiring researchers within this field, which will enable us to better address future pandemics. Also, if we can add researchers on quantum physics to our faculty, the study on quantum computer would accelerate. I believe that as OIST grows, its pioneering research into important fields of study for Japan would become more prominent.

One of the goals of OIST is to provide technology transfer for the development of the Okinawa Prefecture. To date, OIST has acquired about 150 patents, and the school is now working with Onna Village to build an Innovation City near campus. In this Innovation City, we want to attract high-tech startup companies.

We already have a group of politicians in Tokyo who has expressed a willingness to support OIST. Also, collaboration with companies is progressing and we believe that our challenge of building a high-tech area in Okinawa will be successful. We are currently in the process of applying for the Super City of National Strategic Special Zone, but we are willing to combine the Super City and Innovation City projects as we continue to work on the latter with Onna Village. Technology is the core of both projects. For example, we envision autonomous shuttle busses to provide transportation between Innovation City, the OIST campus, and Onna Village. With deregulation, why not also connect the 50 resort hotels in Onna Village? We would like to incorporate science entertainment and are now discussing ways to collaborate with teamLab on how we can disseminate science stories that young people would enjoy. I believe this is how OIST can contribute to the local and international communities through science.

I would like OIST to consider having finance and economics as research topics.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to start this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, what I would like to incorporate next year are classes in economics, the startup culture, and social sciences. With the support of faculty and experts, we are planning to introduce such additional curriculums. Though we cannot confer degrees in these fields, we would like to add these curriculums to enhance student training.

In the U.S., 75% of new jobs are born from startup companies with less than five years of establishment. It is important to establish a culture of starting a business and investing in a startup, and for that purpose deregulation is also necessary. The challenge for the future is that, since OIST is funded by Japanese taxpayers, we need to help the people in Japan recognize the value of OIST and secure subsidy from the government in the next 10 years. This will lead to the expansion of having 200 faculty members. Projects such as Innovation City will be difficult to achieve unless the subsidy increases.


By Dr. Peter Gruss, President/CEO, Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST)

The Japanese translation of this article was published in the on June 1, 2020 in the 「TOPインタビュー」 column of the Kinyu Facsimile Shimbun newspaper under the title "「世界トップレベルの大学に」."