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Wanted: world’s best minds

With further globalization of economic strategies among the industrially advanced nations, fostering and securing “brains” in the scientific and technological fields has become of utmost importance to every country.

It used to take a while before an invention, no matter how valuable, is recognized as having the potential to be converted into practical use. Nowadays such lead time has been extremely shortened. For example, no sooner did professor Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University announce the successful creation of an induced pluripotent stem cell than there started keen competition throughout the world for establishing the regenerative medical technology based on iPS.

For any country to prevail in the stiff competition resulting from these rapid changes it is indispensable to secure young, excellent human resources. That is why the United States and other advanced countries have carefully crafted strategies for recruiting promising talent from other countries.

Unfortunately, however, Japan lags far behind other industrialized nations in attracting young brains from abroad.

There are three main reasons for this:

Politicians and bureaucrats in general do not understand the significance of international competition to acquire excellent brains; universities do not offer many scholarships to overseas students and employment opportunities are limited for those who come to Japan to study.

This article reviews what major nations of the world are doing to strengthen their human resources and to point out what Japan must do to catch up with them.

A sharp decline in the number of foreign students seeking to study in the U.S. after 9/11 has created a sense of crisis in Washington, leading Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to convene a meeting with educational leaders to discuss means of attracting more students and to urge Congress to ease rules on student visas.

Allan Goodman, president of the U.S. Institute of International Education, said that attracting brains from other countries was the only way to maintain leading edge research programs at graduate schools, which face serious shortages of American students.

Last year, the U.S. government launched a new program within the Fulbright program, under which about 30 top “geniuses” from all over the world are invited to study at American institutes for five years, each receiving a whopping $160,000 scholarship a year.

Of the students receiving doctorate degrees from American universities in 2007, those from other countries account for 35 percent overall, and as high as 45 percent in the fields of science and technology.

About three quarters of the students graduating from top universities in China with honors have studied in the U.S. Famous institutions like Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford are offering the same high standard curricula in China as are offered in their U.S. campuses and those who do well are invited to study in the U.S.

Similar efforts are being made by British universities. Gordon Johnson, vice chancellor of the University of Cambridge, has stated that the value of an institute of high education is determined by the number of outstanding researchers and students it can attract globally. Indeed, two-thirds of 7,000 post graduate students at Cambridge are non-British.

At the prodding of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, the British government has drastically expanded its scholarship program so that since 2001, nearly 300 Chinese are given up to £30,000 every year.

France is no less enthusiastic. During his visit to China in 2004, then President Jacques Chirac urged Chinese students to come to study in France. Since then, the French government established a number of schools in China to teach French and started Chinese language curricula at 10 elementary schools, 153 secondary schools and 100 universities in France.

Similar campaigns are also being pushed by Germany and Australia to allure students from abroad. Especially noteworthy is close collaboration among the Australian government, academia and industry to attain that goal.

The National University of Singapore, meanwhile, has opened a graduate school program jointly with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. With the Singaporean government funding the entire cost, the students there pay no tuitions and receive scholarships and living allowances. For the 40 openings, the applications from India alone numbered 700 last year.

At present, those from outside of Singapore account for two-thirds of the students there. Those who graduate are given permanent resident visas. More than 70 percent of them choose to stay in Singapore after their three-year compulsory sojourn to work there expires.

The University of Hong Kong has tied up with the University of London to enable its students to receive the same high quality education as in Britain without leaving their native territory.

Worthy of note are the attitudes of China and India, which send many of its students to more industrially advanced parts of the world. Their logic is that even if those students never return home, they will contribute to elevating the reputation of their motherlands, facilitate transfer of most advanced scientific and technological information, and serve as a bridge between their homelands and the countries where they work after finishing school.

Therein lies the Chinese government’s national strategy of sending top-notch students to graduate schools in Europe and North America without any hesitation.

Compared with all these endeavors being made by major powers to attract students from outside of their boundaries, Japan has done extremely poorly.

In the first place, there are not many politicians and bureaucrats who have the background of scientific and technological education. And no Japanese political figure visiting abroad has encouraged local youths to come and study in Japan.

The government’s Council for Science and Technology Policy is supposed to play a central role in drawing up strategies for technological development, but a majority of its members are politicians and bureaucrats who have little or no knowledge about scientific education.

In the past, the Japanese used to look down on students from abroad, saying they came to Japan from backward countries to study advanced technologies. The fact is, however, that many of those overseas students do much better than most of their Japanese counterparts.

Scholarships being offered to students from abroad are insufficient. Moreover, there are very limited employment opportunities even for those who graduate with outstanding scholastic records.

Group-oriented mind-set, prejudices against persons with different thinking and inclinations not to properly evaluate individual capabilities: These are some of the factors that have made it difficult for brilliant post-graduate students — both Japanese and non-Japanese — to obtain good career opportunities.

Japan cannot have a bright future unless serious efforts are made by politicians, business leaders, universities and enterprises to overcome these problems.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the February issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic topics.