The resort village of Onna in Japan’s Okinawa prefecture has captured many tourists’ hearts with its aqua blue coastline and coral reefs perfect for diving and snorkeling, but the idyllic atmosphere also attracts serious academics from around the world.
The village’s small, young science university is seeking to become a hub for fostering cooperation among universities in Asia, enabling society to take on complex challenges, its newly appointed president told Nikkei Asia in a recent interview.
“The school’s diversity, coupled with the nature-rich and peaceful way of living in Okinawa, makes a good climate for thinking about new possibilities and being creative,” said Karin Markides, the new president and CEO of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST).
The Swedish chemist who previously headed universities in Sweden and Armenia, and worked with others in Singapore, Taiwan and China, came to her new post in June after being selected from around 370 candidates worldwide.
The university, which was founded in 2011 by the Japanese government to promote development in tourism-dependent Okinawa, has steadily attracted academics from around the world. It offers an all-English center for cross-disciplinary research to 255 doctoral students from 52 countries and territories, who go on to pursue careers ranging from academic research to founding startups and working in major companies. The largest share of scholars come from Japan (20%), followed by India (13%), the U.K. (7%), Russia (7%), China (5%) and Taiwan (5%).
Markides, who was previously on the committee that selects Nobel laureates in chemistry, says diversity is key to making groundbreaking discoveries that will help solve societal challenges.
“When I’m asking Nobel laureates, ‘How did you come to this new idea?’ they almost always tell me that they put their brain in a different environment and were inspired by a company, some friends, or another culture — a change in context allowed them to expand knowledge into new areas,” she said.
OIST is steadily building its reputation in the academic world. Its generous financial support to students, which covers tuition and living expenses, allows them to focus on their work. Research grants to individual faculty make it easier for them to explore ambitious, long-term topics than is typically possible with more common project-based funding. These features enhance the university’s research environment.
OIST was ranked No. 1 in Japan and ninth in the world in the 2019 Nature Index, which ranks institutions by the number of scientific articles and papers published in leading journals. One of its faculty, Svante Paabo, was awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.
The quantum materials science unit’s laboratory is seen here at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University in Okinawa, Japan. (Photo by Yuki Nakao)
In her new role at OIST, Markides is eager to explore how universities can work together to become a driving force so “the whole world can actually move forward in innovating and improving society” — an ideal that launched her career in university management.
“It is more and more known that there have to be complex solutions for tackling the world’s problems,” including those listed in the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals, she said. Universities stand a better chance of contributing to society and developing through friendly competition if they can share “common ground” or a “mission.”
A crucial step is to deepen connections among universities. Okinawa’s strategic location in the middle of the East China Sea gives OIST “a chance to attract people from the region and become a hub as an important meeting place of [the] Asia-Pacific,” said Markides.
She also stressed the importance of working with industry. “In the last five years in northern Europe, industry’s interest in basic research is growing, making collaboration with universities essential,” Markides said. As digital technology, big data and other disciplines overlap with business, companies are realizing that they need to stay up to date with research in different disciplines to develop products and build sustainability.
The Campus of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University draws scholars from Asia and around the world. (Photo by Yuki Nakao)
“The need for transformation will create opportunities for a university like OIST when it comes to attracting industries that understand the need [for] basic research,” she said.
Markides also noted that universities can play a key role in implementing solutions, which usually entails the difficult task of bringing together the public sector and industry, by setting standards for the necessary research and development.
“Today, we don’t see the change needed for sustainable development,” Markides said. “When universities provide new knowledge and industries transform, the public sector also needs to break their traditions and commit to develop the needed infrastructure,” she added.
“Universities can take on the role of establishing test beds, attracting all relevant stakeholders, and lifting the outcomes for a sustainable and resilient future,” she said.
Source : Nikkei