IKOMA, Nara Pref. — While many national universities are apprehensive about being transformed into independent administrative corporations next April, Koji Torii, president of Nara Institute of Science and Technology (NAIST), sees it as a good opportunity.

Torii said the transformation will enable his university to compete fairly with more prestigious colleges that have roots in the old Imperial universities.

“Turning national universities into independent corporations will also give us more flexibility in management,” said the 64-year-old expert in software engineering, who became president of the university in 2001. The institute opened in 1991 as a state-run university consisting only of graduate schools — information sciences, biological sciences and materials science. It now has 1,083 students.

The imminent reforms of national universities — passed by the Lower House in May — aim to create a free and competitive research environment. Under those reforms, institutions will compete for funding allocated according to academic performance (as determined by third-party evaluation).

Although Torii’s comments might be attributed to plain positive thinking, his confidence is not groundless as his university, although still young, has been producing good results, with faculty members winning various awards for their research and receiving international recognition.

For instance, a research team at the institute announced in May that it had identified a gene that caused cancer-cell multiplication in an embryonic stem cell. The finding was a world first and the team’s paper appeared in the May 29 issue of the prestigious scientific journal Nature.

Also, last October, the institute won a total of 432 million yen in grants from the education ministry for two research programs. This was part of the ministry’s new initiative of allocating funds to programs that serve as centers for advanced education and research.

The achievements owe something to the relatively free research environment and the young age of many of the scientists working at the university. To keep ahead of much of the competition, Torii said that his university has been and will continue to conduct cutting-edge research that is not carried out by other universities.

“The niche we find is in interdisciplinary areas,” Torii said, adding that the creation of a bioinformatics and genomics department in April last year was one such example.

But promoting research in new areas is easier said than done, as researchers in established fields are reluctant to leap into the unknown.

“Our small campus helps in this regard,” he said, smiling. “We have only one dining room and faculty members in different fields have many chances to meet and exchange opinions, which helps generate new ideas.”

The university has about 200 faculty members, which is tiny compared with most national universities.

The college is also actively promoting international exchange and cooperation. In fiscal 2002, it sent 282 researchers abroad and accepted 285 foreign researchers. It has also held many international symposiums and workshops.

Torii has placed importance on international exchanges because of his own experiences. After acquiring a Ph.D. in engineering from Osaka University in 1967, Torii worked for a government research body and went to Cambridge University in England as a postdoctoral fellow. When he came back to Osaka University as a professor in 1984, he had difficulty fitting into Japan’s closed university and research world. So, Torii sought his opportunities outside of the country, making frequent trips abroad to work with foreign counterparts. “It turned out to be a good experience for me,” he says.

While some experts express deep concern over Japan’s declining competitiveness in science and technology, Torii said the country should adopt a more flexible attitude.

“What is important for Japan is to nurture people with the ability to seek and solve problems on their own initiative,” he said, adding that his university aims to train scientists who also have a broad outlook and a strong grasp of ethics.

Giving young people a variety of opportunities without limiting them is indispensable for achieving this, he said.

“It is important to provide an environment in which people can change their area of interest easily when they want to. Going through a variety of experiences would enable people to acquire broad knowledge, views and skills,” he said. “Instead of worrying about young people’s declining interest in science, Japan should consider from a broader perspective how to foster people who can contribute to the advancement of science and technology, both in Japan and internationally.”

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