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INTERVIEW

The driving force behind some of Japan's most innovative research

Interview with Kyosuke Nagata, President of the University of Tsukuba
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One of the oldest, most comprehensive and selective research universities in Japan, the University of Tsukuba has long been on the cutting-edge. A leader in internationalization and a pioneer in interdisciplinary programs, its alumni include several Nobel Prize winners and students from around the world. Kyosuke Nagata, its president, has been leading the university since 2013

What do you consider to be some of your most important accomplishments during your tenure?

We have done a lot of things, but one I would highlight would be our success in securing increased funding from industry. Of all the Japanese universities, we have seen the second-largest increase in the ratio of industry funding. Now, we rank number two in terms of receiving funds from companies and count 40 companies in Japan among our funders. In fact, we are the recipients of the largest grant from Toyota. In addition to that, we are establishing a system in which we can recruit companies to support our research and education system.

Another success has been in sports. In the United States, every university has an athletics department, and this is beneficial to the student body. No such system exists here in Japan, so we have recently established a brand-new athletics department, which will operate in the same way as those in the United States. To do this, I held discussions with the president of the NCAA this year, and I learned a lot from him. We are now trying to promote a Japanese-style NCAA among Japanese universities.

 

What can you tell us about the university’s approach to diversity and equal opportunities among the student body?

Internationalization and interdisciplinary activities can transcend any kind of barrier, be that the barrier between academia and industry, the barrier between disciplines such as medicine and engineering, and the barriers faced by people with disabilities. We are working to set up a new type of research and education system with a focus on equality in order to allow people with language barriers or those with disabilities to be equal participants.

“We rank number two in terms of receiving funds from companies”

University of Tsukuba Campus. Photo: University of Tsukuba

University of Tsukuba was founded in 1872. Could you walk us through the evolution of the university until the present day?

The precursor to the University of Tsukuba of today was established just five years after the era of the samurai. In Japan at that time, there was no university system, and the government made efforts to bring in professors. After the Second World War, the United States university system was imported, and in 1947, every Japanese university changed its system to what we have presently. At the time, universities were still supplying the education systems or research. Then, in 1973 it changed. While the other universities served only those in their areas, our university was totally different and served as a trial system for others. For example, at other universities in Japan, students and professors belonged to their faculty, be that medicine or engineering. However, at the University of Tsukuba, the student does not belong to the faculty; they belong to their particular degree program. What this means is that a degree program can consist of a variety of professors derived from different faculties or disciplines. In practice, this means that if you need, for example, in a physics program, some ethics input for research, what would normally happen is that this would not be possible because there are no ethics professors in a physics department. However, our education system is based on this professor sector and student sector. Therefore, we can very easily make new programs, picking up professors from different disciplines. We started this model. Later on, more than 20 Japanese universities implemented a very similar system. The mission of our university is to try something new. It’s different, and it is a very experimental university.


What are the main competitive advantages of the University of Tsukuba?

We are at the leading-edge in terms of internationalization in educational research. I am assuming that we will have increased competition in the coming years. This is because every university right now has realized that they need to recruit international students because of the demographic decrease in Japan. One thing we are discussing is to set up offices in the United States, Europe and Asian countries to recruit students for our center outside of Japan.

“Internationalization and interdisciplinary activities can transcend any kind of barrier”

Given the fourth industrial revolution, or society 5.0, how are you preparing your students to face new challenges?

Society is changing. An information technology (IT) based society is coming. Nobody disagrees about that. To this end, this university has some very promising university propositions. Thirty-five years ago, we started an undergraduate program in IT. That meant that any kind of student, whether they were studying humanities, social sciences, medicine, engineering, or applied sciences, had to gain two credits from IT. This helped very much: Pokémon was made by one of our alumni. He was studying in the art and design department, but also took credits in computer systems. This is a very good example of the university’s success.

We are now expanding this IT subject from two credits to four credits in order to give students a better grounding in topics such as AI. We realize that the IT-based age is coming, and we have to prepare our students. To do this, the IT subject has to be richer and more fruitful.

 

Which fields are the priority for the university in terms of research and development?

For basic sciences, it is simple: computer science. We made, in collaboration with the University of Tokyo, the fastest supercomputer in Japan. We are very strong in research in supercomputer systems. We are also very strong in IT systems, one example being a robotic suit project led by one of our professors. Usually, robotics professors look at humanoid-type robots, but his idea is completely different. He is making an exoskeleton robot, so it is essentially a robotic suit. It has useful application in people with limb injuries, for example. This robotic suit is now included in national health insurance coverage in Denmark and Germany.  

A further example is the work we have been doing in alternative fuel sources. Our researchers have identified a type of algae that can be used to produce fuel with the same octane quality as gasoline. This is a zero-carbon alternative to gasoline or fuel oil. It is based on plant biology and basic science, but it is the chance to do something new. We also have an institute for sleep, which is studying the basis of sleep at the molecular level and producing papers in natural science. This at the leading-edge of research in the field of sleep study.

“We are a very competitive university in terms of research activity, which is an attraction in and of itself”

What role does higher education have to play towards the success of Abenomics?

We are proud of the research imperative. Our university already has several Nobel laureates, and it means that we are strong in terms of the sciences. To continue to improve, we have to nurture the professors themselves. They need funds, they need grants, and so we are always looking at collaboration between industry and academia. We have created a matching system which brings together industrial companies with our researchers, and this brings us closer to the goals envisaged in the Abenomics innovations pillar.

We are working with companies including Toyota in the automobile sector to carry out collaborative research. We are also working with local governments: we are currently working on an experimental town system in an area which had completely destroyed by a typhoon. This gives us the ability to research and pilot automobile systems, food delivery systems and medical care systems. We are also competing with others in some areas, but I do not like competition in this sense, as competition means you have only a very short time to develop something new. Researchers need sufficient time to carry out research trials.


What is the university doing to attract students from abroad?

We are a very competitive university in terms of research activity, which is an attraction in and of itself. We also collaborate with foreign universities – we are currently collaborating in global ethics with Oxford University in the UK, for example. Meanwhile, the University of California has given us the opportunity for any of our interested students to go and study there. We are now looking at high school students outside of Japan. We have started an affiliation with Shanghai Junior High School, which is the top junior high school in China.


How easy is it for a student from a completely different culture to come and study in Japan?

Based on my experience in the United States, I felt a certain difficulty in the first year or two years. Everything is different. We have to understand and recognize where we are different. But we stand for individuality; people are all different human beings no matter where they are from. If a student comes to this university, we start with this concept. You and I are different, of course. We have to start at the minimum consensus or agreement with each other and work forward from there.


What would be your final message about the University of Tsukuba to our readership?

Imagination is fundamental for creating something new. We can create the future, and we must think of the future. Japan is changing right now.

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