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The Kyoto University model

Posted October. 10, 2012 04:20,   


Kyoto University of Japan is getting global attention in the wake of one of its professors, Shinya Yamanaka, receiving this year`s Nobel Prize for Medicine with Sir John Gurdon, a professor at the University of Cambridge. Yamanaka was honored for creating so-called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, which can develop into various cells such as those of the heart, muscles and nerves with the skin cells of adult mice. His receipt of the prestigious prize has imbued pride and confidence in the Japanese people, who are still reeling from last year`s earthquake, a lingering economic crisis, and loss of political leadership.

Kyoto University has also produced the largest number of Japanese Nobel laureates in science with six, including Japan’s first in Hideki Yukawa, a Nobel Prize Laureate in Physics in 1949. The school also had two winners of the Fields Medal, the Nobel Prize in Mathematics. Yamanaka did not graduate from Kyoto University but from Kobe University with a degree in medicine, but has served as a Kyoto University professor since 2004. The provincial university must have a secret for producing many Nobel laureates.

Kyoto University was founded in 1897 as a college of science with the vision “Free academic environment.” The school used to be the base of Germany’s Red Army faction at the University of Tokyo, but the German free academic environment did not change. While investing in science and technology with the belief that science is the foundation of industry, Kyoto did not focus on short-term achievements. Even after its Tokyo rival drew the spotlight by producing leading politicians and government officials, Kyoto University`s interest in and passion for basic science never faded.

Yamanaka’s Nobel honor is the result of the Japanese government’s selective focus. When he created iPS, the government supported his research by providing 5 billion yen (63.9 million U.S. dollars) in 2010. “Without government support, I wouldn’t have made it. Our nation has received a Nobel Prize,” he said. How true. What if the Korean government provided focused support? If it grants 70 billion won (62.9 million dollars) to a professor or a university for stem cell research, it could lead to big fuss. Many Koreans tend to look down on Japan after Korea’s sovereign rating surpassed Japan`s. But Yamanaka’s Nobel Prize has taken a jab at a shallow Korea.

Editorial Writer Chung Sung-hee (shchung@donga.com)