BOSTON — The Japanese government has announced plans for a new research university to be built from scratch in Okinawa Prefecture, the island chain located 2.5 hours flying time southwest of Tokyo and known mainly for its tropical weather and U.S. military bases.
One could hardly think of a more isolated location for such a university. It will focus on biotechnology and will require an investment of $600 million by the Japanese government to get it started. Japanese authorities say it will cost $160 million per year to operate — a figure that seems unrealistically low for a science-based research university. The aim is to recruit half the researchers from outside Japan; the language of instruction is to be English.
Except perhaps for some scientists from China, it is highly unlikely that many top researchers will be lured to Okinawa, not only because of the location and surroundings, but because of the generally internationally uncompetitive salaries offered by Japanese national universities at the senior levels.
From every perspective, except perhaps the view that Okinawa needs some public investment, this is a terrible idea. There are some significant lessons to be learned for higher education generally, and perhaps there is still time for the Japanese government to reconsider.
The decision comes at the same time that Novartis, the multinational pharmaceutical company, announced that it is moving its research laboratories from Switzerland, not exactly a scientific backwater, to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to take advantage of the scientific infrastructure and entrepreneurial atmosphere there. This is illustrates why Okinawa is not the right place for a research university. Even in the era of the Internet, intellectual enterprise requires community infrastructures, and other academic and intellectual stimulation.
There are some examples of great universities or scientific centers located in isolated environments, although it would be especially problematic to attempt this feat in the current environment. Even some of the great American state universities, established in the 19th century in relatively isolated places such as Iowa City, or Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, suffer somewhat from geographical isolation and find it difficult to retain top scientists and scholars. And this is why great centers of science have for a long time been located in or near metropolitan centers that have a tradition of academic excellence — such as Tokyo and Kyoto as well as Boston or San Francisco, Paris and London.
It is one thing to establish postsecondary teaching-oriented educational institutions in places like Okinawa to provide opportunities for training and education to the local population. It is quite another to build a research university in such a location.
Okinawa must be categorized as a remote place. Novosibirsk in Russia and Los Alamos in the United States come to mind as examples of significant scientific centers located in remote places. But both were built to serve military needs more than basic or applied research, and were purposely located in places where security would be easier to maintain.
The Japanese experience with establishing Tsukuba University in Ibaraki Prefecture near Tokyo is an example of the challenges. Tsukuba, founded in the 1973 as a way of diversifying higher education from the center of Tokyo, required several decades and much money to establish itself as a major academic center.
The insurmountable problem of the plans for Okinawa is that the location is so clearly peripheral to other academic institutions as well as to the industries it is intended to serve. It will be very difficult to attract top talent to Okinawa regardless of salary or other incentives — and the Japanese national universities are not noted either for administrative flexibility or high salaries.
Top scientists, it should be remembered, are a rare breed. They are attracted by a scholarly community as much as by high salaries and favorable working conditions. The incalculable elements of an intellectual atmosphere — bookstores, cinemas, coffeehouses and the like — are all significant in the thinking of academics. Okinawa has multiple disadvantages of location, climate and the complete lack of other academic or scientific amenities.
There are several relevant lessons to be learned from the current Japanese proposal — not only for Japan, which still has time to drop the idea, but also for other initiatives elsewhere for the establishment of new scientific institutions.
Major research institutions should not be founded in remote or peripheral locations. It is, of course, appropriate to have higher education facilities in such places in order to provide access and skills to local populations. But research universities will seldom be successful. The informal infrastructures of intellectual life are important.
While communication is now possible through the Internet, there is no substitute for community or for direct links to both other researchers and the users (companies, government agencies and others) of the knowledge products to be produced.
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