Nobel laureate Hideki Shirakawa suggested Friday that elementary school children in Japan more firsthand experience in their science education.

Asked for advice on the issue, the 64-year-old professor emeritus at Tsukuba University replied: “Take pupils to the field, into nature.”

Shirakawa won the 2000 Nobel Prize for chemistry on Oct. 10, together with American physicist Alan J. Heeger and chemist Alan G. MacDiarmid, for their discovery in the 1970s that plastics could be made to conduct electricity.

The scholar admitted he had not attended an elementary school science class once in the past 30 years, but he says he is worried to hear that classes that conduct scientific experiments are gradually disappearing from the school curricula.

“The important thing for pupils is to witness the actual phenomena of physics, chemistry and biology in nature,” Shirakawa said in response to questions from reporters at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan.

“Pupils may watch (the phenomena) on TV or video, but it is very difficult to experience the ‘real feeling of nature’ through those means,” he said.

Education in Japan tends to focus on raising the average level of students as a collective body, but it should nurture promising students as well, so as to raise the level of scientific research in Japan, he added.

Speaking in fluent English, Shirakawa explained his surprise upon hearing the news that he had won the prize for a discovery made such a long time ago, and how his life was thrown into chaos when a horde of reporters gathered to interview him.

He also expressed his gratitude for congratulations that poured in from dozens of people.

But when asked his general opinion about the government’s support for basic scientific research in Japan, he paused for a moment.

“I would say research funds (given by the government) are not enough,” he said. “And usually, the government’s funding is limited only to experimental projects . . . The government should invest more in fundamental facilities such as research laboratories and buildings.”

To improve the research environment at Japanese universities, Shirakawa said more frequent exchanges among researchers of various academic institutions is the key.

“The circumstances of scientific research in Japanese universities are not bad,” he said. “But the chances of human exchange between other institutions, including those of foreign countries, are very limited.

“We have to enhance the movement of scholars and researchers both domestically and internationally,” he added.

Shirakawa also hinted that he may accept a post at an overseas institution in the future.

The academic is the ninth Japanese to win a Nobel prize and the second to get the prize in chemistry, following Kenichi Fukui in 1981.

He discovered a conductive plastic after examining a black film he found on a byproduct when a researcher accidentally added 1,000 times the intended amount of a catalyst into a mixture at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

The further application of conductive polymers will lead to the development of “much smaller computers with higher ability” in the near future, Shirakawa explained, thereby leading to further progress in the field of information technology.

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