Conversation between Ryoji Noyori and Susumu Tonegawa
At the inauguration of the new director of the Brain Science Institute
Doctor of Engineering. Born 1938, graduated from Kyoto University, served as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, appointed professor at Nagoya University, and has been in his current position since 2003. Received the 2001 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
Moderator:On April 1st this year, Dr Susumu Tonegawa was inaugurated as director of the RIKEN Brain Science Institute (BSI). First of all, I would like President Noyori to share his hopes for the new director.
Noyori:The inauguration of Dr Tonegawa as director of the BSI is welcomed not only by the BSI and RIKEN, but also by the whole of Japan’s academic sector.
Tonegawa:Thank you very much.
Noyori:In 2006, we were evaluated highly by the RIKEN Advisory Council (RAC), an international external evaluation committee, which noted that “RIKEN is comparable to outstanding research institutions in Europe and the US”. However, I myself believe that RIKEN cannot be a world-class institution unless it implements a broad range of reforms. No research institution functions well with only distinguished researchers; a good manager and a secure operating organization must also be available. I myself as President of RIKEN, and the management team, including the directors of the branch institutes and centers and the managers of the administration department, have limited experience in management, and I realize that we lack world-class capabilities in this area. I expect Director Tonegawa to provide strong leadership.
Tonegawa:Since graduating from Kyoto University, I have devoted my life to scientific research abroad, but now that I have accepted the request from President Noyori, I hope that I will be able to contribute to the Japanese academic sector while I am still energetic. Since the BSI was founded, I have been involved in its activities as group director of the RIKEN-MIT Neuroscience Research Center. I had been thinking that the BSI would be the only institution I would want to work for here in Japan. Now I am very pleased to be afforded this position in an ideal way.
I think Japan and the US are alike in many ways in their approach to science. However, there are still many differences. To what extent should I adapt to the Japanese way of doing things? If I adapt too much, things will develop along the same path followed up to now by Japanese scientists, so it is important to maintain a good balance. As a brain scientist, I realize that people’s behavior and values are largely influenced by their environment, and I am determined to resist being caught up in the Japanese way of doing things, and to avoid adapting as much as possible.
Even so, I also realize that the best results will not be obtained if the American way of doing things is introduced as it is, so I want to run the BSI in consultation with the many people involved.
Setting out a major target
Director, Brain Science Institute
PhD. Born 1939, graduated from Kyoto University, served as a chief researcher at the Basel Institute for Immunology, appointed professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and has been in his current position since 2009. Received the 1987 Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology.
Moderator:Dr Tonegawa will continue his research activities while working as director of the BSI.
Tonegawa:Yes, I have decided to continue my research with the support of President Noyori and the many other people involved. Since the position of director involves heavy responsibilities and there are a great many things to do, I was unsure whether I should continue my research activities. I concluded, however, that I would remain a researcher since I felt I would be powerless without my research. Without being modest, I am classed as a top researcher.
Noyori:Dr Tonegawa is engaged in research at the highest levels. The goal of research should not only be to enjoy oneself, and it is important to carry out top-level research.
Tonegawa:I completely agree with you. Every day, while I am engaged in research, I ask myself whether my work remains at the top level. Methodological approaches in brain research are changing dramatically. In my research, I am careful to be positive in introducing new approaches and in combining various approaches.
Noyori:I am very encouraged to hear you say you are confident in your position, and, as one of the world’s top scientists, that you always review your work and undertake self-examination. After all, the value of research is judged by the researcher himself. Currently in Japan, however, too many young scientists rely on others to evaluate their work, as if they are undergoing an examination. It is vital to take a serious look at the basis of your own research, and to continue to work on projects that carry your own convictions.
Tonegawa:The researchers themselves are best positioned to determine what is lacking in their own research.
Noyori:Yes. For this reason, the way to a research breakthrough cannot be discovered by any other person. There is an internal sense of self-confidence that can never be understood by others. Researchers must retain this sense.
Tonegawa:I advise young people to set their goals as high as they can. Whether the goal is high or low, it will involve the same level of effort, and the same time and energy to accomplish it.
Some days ago, I had the opportunity to talk to some postdoctoral researchers at MIT. In their position, they are implementing projects for the laboratories to which they belong. I dared to say to them, “Since you will work in the world’s best environment here at MIT for three to four years, you should endeavor to implement projects you believe will have considerable impact if successful.” Three days later, their supervisor came to my office and told me, “Because of what you said, the researchers have begun saying that their project is not interesting.” (laughter)
Noyori:I often say to young scientists, “It is enough to pursue only one task throughout your life, but it must be outstanding.” Scientists do not need to write many papers: “It is this paper that I want to be reviewed.”
Tonegawa:I give exactly the same advice.
Noyori:However, everybody gets themselves involved in a variety of research themes just to be safe. This is closely linked to the research evaluation system, and there is a demand for leaders who are able to supervise and support young people who are highly motivated to carry out major projects.
Proud of being a small minority
Tonegawa:When I meet a young researcher, I can generally determine whether the researcher is capable of making a great discovery. I can more or less assess his or her creativity on the basis of my experience. However, the question arises—What is creativity? The question remains unanswered in brain science. How much of creativity is dependent on heredity, and how much can be developed by education? And what kind of environment maximizes a person’s creativity? This remains unclear in brain science.
Noyori:My theory of creativity is this. As we grow up, society trains us to conform through the social morality we learn from our parents, our education at school and laws. However, creativity exists apart from the conformity. If we are asked to conform except in the cases of scientific research, our brain will have difficulty adjusting.
Tonegawa:I agree, because research is upsetting conventional common sense and accepted theories. An independent spirit is required; the ability to say, “What everybody else thinks may not be correct.” Meanwhile, society runs smoothly when things are decided by majority rule. It causes problems when only one person opposes something that all the others agree on. If there is absolutely no opposition, however, nothing new is produced. One cannot be an excellent leader without the ability or an approach that can support the opinion of the minority.
Noyori:Because original research means being independent and creative, people who do this kind of research are certainly in the minority at the start of their research. Scientists must feel proud that they form a small minority. In Japan, everything is determined by priority being given to the majority, and the minority view is not valued. In academic circles, the prevalent culture is one in which young scientists seeking to do original research are not encouraged to feel proud of their work.
Tonegawa:Many young researchers in my laboratory in the United States are very proud of themselves, even though they have yet to show any remarkable achievements (laughter). In nurturing scientists, it is also important to encourage young researchers to develop self-confidence. Scientists make hypotheses and carry out experiments to test them, most of which end in failure. Even so, they must not lose confidence or become disappointed. If one idea does not produce the desired result, the scientist must quickly move forward with another idea. You cannot be a scientist without being an optimist, undaunted by your failures.
The diversity of research organizations in the US
Moderator:What are the differences in the research environment between Japan and the US?
Tonegawa:Research in the US has two excellent characteristics. One is that people of ability from all over the world are gathered together there, and the other is in the diverse nature of the research organizations themselves.
It is the private universities that contribute to producing this diversity. In Japan, the universities where cutting-edge basic research is carried out are for the most part national universities. By contrast, in the US, the major universities engaged in basic research are mostly private entities. However, a fact that is often misunderstood is that more than half of the research costs, even in the private universities, are funded by the national government. In the life sciences, research funds are provided by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other organizations. It should be noted, however, that individual private universities are allowed to manage their own affairs with much more independence than is the case for Japanese universities. In the US, permission from the NIH or the like is not required before a university can promote research in a particular area in which it wants to focus a concentration of investment. This is a major difference with the situation in Japan. To allow individual research organizations to make the most of their unique resources—that’s the strong point of the system in the US.
RIKEN encourages originality through inter-sectional exchanges
Noyori:I want to run RIKEN as a unique and autonomous institution that is confident in its role. If something interferes with our developments in science, we must take the initiative to change the policies and laws to overcome those obstacles.
How, then, does RIKEN encourage originality in the researchers who work there? While relying largely on personal experience and ability, original ideas often arise through personal exchange. RIKEN is Japan’s only comprehensive institution dedicated to research into the natural sciences, with many research centers covering a broad range of areas. I say to individual centers: “Please exhibit originality, but never become isolated in doing so.” I want to develop an institutional culture that allows researchers to exchange ideas with each other across different areas and organizations. Although brain science and accelerator science are distinct fields, there may be aspects in common. RIKEN is not organized longitudinally like universities, which are divided into faculties or departments. I hope that inter-sectional exchange and unified research activities will encourage originality, and this should be RIKEN’s strong point. I would like the BSI to invest more in exchanges with other centers.
Substantiality in the US as opposed to the iemoto system in Japan
Moderator:Dr Tonegawa, you have just mentioned the strengths of the research environment in the US. What are the problems?
Tonegawa:People have pointed out the great pressure put on young assistant professors in their 30s. In the US, there is no distinction between full professors and assistant professors. Assistant professors secure research funds by themselves, teach their students, and are also involved in supervising researchers. While learning how to do these tasks, they must also produce research results that have a significant impact so as to gain tenure after five years.
Moderator:In the event that they do not obtain tenure, is there an alternative route?
Tonegawa:For people at MIT who have been close to obtaining tenure, but who missed out, tenured positions often come up at other universities. Some of them make major breakthroughs there. Ranking in US universities is trapezoidal rather than pyramidal as in Japan. In the US, acceptable research can be carried on at second-ranking universities as well as at top-level ones.
On the other hand, the Japanese academic sector is dominated by a shame culture. It seems that researchers who deviate from the career track of top-level universities are deemed unsuccessful both to themselves and by their colleagues. In contrast, substance is preferred over show in the US. Even if someone fails to obtain tenure at MIT, their immediate academic community will continue to support them, preferring to believe that MIT’s evaluation is unjust. And researchers brace themselves for great discoveries. I think this culture of preferring substance has made significant contributions to the great success of scientific research in the US.
Noyori:In the academic sector in Japan, it has long been common practice for researchers to be evaluated according to their university and position, rather than by their achievements. Hence, a structure similar to the iemoto system [rigid hierarchy] in which affiliations and positions serve as certifications of worth has predominated. However, this system does not befit the natural sciences.
Tonegawa:That may be the case. An example of how the iemoto system may not be of benefit is when Japanese students submit testimonials as part of their application to MIT. These testimonials are often prepared by the dean or faculty director of their university. In the US, however, a testimonial is not trusted more simply because it has been issued by the dean. It does not matter whether the document is prepared by the dean or an assistant professor. The important point is the quality of work carried out by the writer of the testimonial.
Personal assessments can only be made by people
Noyori:Then, the question arises over how to assess the content of research. I think the answer is that it is a subjective judgment.
Tonegawa:Yes. Although everybody believes science to be objective, the reality is that subjective personal opinions are relevant in the final analysis. Fortunately, there are always some evaluators who have the same opinions as researchers.
Noyori:When employing people, achievement-based assessments are dominant in Japan. But the evaluator must discover the candidate’s potential, rather than emphasizing his or her past achievements.
Tonegawa:If subjective choice is eliminated, promising candidates will not be recruited.
Noyori:In Japan, however, it is said that the criteria used for recruiting researchers must be as objective as possible. Hence, priority is put on their achievements, including the number of papers published and the number of citations. It is important to nurture evaluators, but in Japan this does not proceed as well as in Europe and the US.
Tonegawa:Japan and the US also have different university entrance examination systems. MIT has no admissions exam as they do in Japan. Instead, in addition to an interview, emphasis is put on a short thesis that explains the reason why the candidate aspires to join MIT. You may wonder how the thousands of candidates are interviewed. The answer is that the interviews are conducted by graduates of MIT who are actively working in various fields. Each interviewer evaluates their candidate students subjectively. The university verifies whether those students who are rated highly by their interviewers prove to be truly valued by MIT after admission, and when a negative result is obtained, the interviewer is removed from the list of interviewers for the next examination. Basically, this method is not as objective as test scores. The same applies at Harvard and other universities.
This is one major difference compared with the situation in Japan. Since the end of the war, Japanese society has placed excessive emphasis on egalitarianism and objectivity, not trusting in personal subjectivity. In the case of creative occupations, in particular scientific research, this would seem to present big problems.
Noyori: I think personal assessments can only be made by people. It is impossible to assess a person by computer on the basis of numerical data. Systems to assess research results and educational systems, including admissions examinations, must also be evaluated based on which style—American or Japanese—has contributed more to advances in science, and which has nurtured more talent.
The most important thing is that life is interesting
Moderator:Although you may have more things to say, I would like you to send some words of encouragement to the young people who have set their hearts on becoming scientists in the current severe economic environment.
Tonegawa:When I suggested to postdoctoral researchers at MIT that they “challenge something difficult since you have gone to the trouble of becoming scientists,” they were worried that they would not be able to survive if they were unsuccessful in researching difficult themes. I advised them, “Even if you lose your current post as a researcher, you will be able to survive in another job. You should resolve to live your life with a spirit of challenging high goals.” What is the goal of life? In the end, the most important thing is that life is interesting. I would like to advise young people who want to become scientists, “You want to become a scientist, don’t you? You love science, don’t you? So why not live by doing what you love!”
Noyori:I agree with you. Science, like art, provides a way of liberating the spirit and actualizing the self. Although we cannot go beyond the principles and rules of nature, we can do everything we can within that framework. That’s great, Dr Tonegawa! I guess you didn’t concern yourself with how things would work out when you left Japan for America.
Tonegawa:No, I didn’t think about it at all. I simply wanted to become a molecular biologist.
Noyori:You left Japan 45 years ago and have now returned home with your enthusiasm for science intact. I would like you to pass on your attitude to young people in Japan. By talking to you today, I have found many points where we meet on common ground.
Interviewer/writer: Akira Tateyama, Photon Create; photographs by Studio CAC
Translated by Inter Group Corporation
Born in Japan in 1938, Ryoji Noyori earned his bachelor and master degrees in industrial chemistry at Kyoto University, and upon graduating in 1963, became an instructor at the same university. He obtained his doctorate in 1967, and in the following year was appointed as an associate professor at Nagoya University. From 1969 to 1970 he worked as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, after which he returned to Nagoya University where he was promoted to professor in 1972. He served as dean of the Graduate School of Science at Nagoya University from 1997 to 1999. In 2001, Noyori shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with K. B. Sharpless and W. S. Knowles. He was appointed President of the Chemical Society of Japan from 2002 to 2003, and assumed the office of RIKEN President in October 2003. Noyori's honors include the Japan Academy Prize, the Order of Culture, the Wolf Prize in Chemistry, and the Roger Adams Award, and he currently holds the honorary position of University Professor at Nagoya. He is best known for his development of an asymmetric catalysis reaction using chiral organometallic catalysts, a method this is used worldwide in research and industry.
Susumu Tonegawa was born in Nagoya, Japan, in 1939. He graduated from the Department of Chemistry at Kyoto University in 1963, and received his PhD in molecular biology from the University of California, San Diego, USA, in 1968. After postdoctoral training at the Salk Institute in San Diego, he joined the Basel Institute for Immunology in Switzerland. In 1981, he was appointed Professor of Biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and was a member of the MIT Center for Cancer Research. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1987, and in 1994 founded the Center for Learning and Memory at MIT. He is the recipient of the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize, the Gairdner Foundation International Award, the Order of Culture, the Bristol Myers Squibb Prize in Cancer Research, and the Albert and Mary Lasker Award. He currently serves as the director of the RIKEN Brain Science Institute, a Picower Professor of Biology and Neuroscience at MIT, and the director of the RIKEN–MIT Neuroscience Research Center.