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Science Leads the Way to a Bright Future President Koizumi Speaks with Nobel Prize Recipients Dr. Ryoji Noyori and Dr. Hideki Shirakawa (provisional translation)

February 18, 2002

The second year of the 21st Century, 2002, has finally arrived.2 One of the most pressing issues faced by our resource-poor nation in the new millennium is the promotion of science and technology. Indeed, "the establishment of a nation of innovative science and technology"3 figures prominently in the Koizumi Cabinet's "Basic Policies for Economic and Fiscal Management." With this in mind, the receipt last year by Dr. Ryoji Noyori (Professor, Nagoya University Graduate School) of a Nobel Prize and that by Dr. Hideki Shirakawa (Professor Emeritus, Tsukuba University) in the previous year [2000] were undoubtedly important events that provided the Japanese people with new hope and confidence.
  Liberal Democratic Party President Junichiro Koizumi recently met with Dr. Noyori and Dr. Shirakawa to discuss how science and technology might "lead the way to a bright future." Engaged in promoting his own unconventional program of reform, President Koizumi was in broad agreement with the ideas expressed by both Dr. Noyori and Dr. Shirakawa that "the prize came as the result of persistent work in an area different from that in which others were working," and "it is better to strive to be the 'only one' rather than 'number one.'"

The Prize Encourages "the Establishment of a Nation of Innovative Science and Technology"

  LDP President Koizumi - It was announced on October 10 [2001] that Dr. Noyori had been chosen to receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. As he was the tenth Japanese recipient of the Prize and became so on this date [10/10], this combination of 10s made for very happy news. Adding to this, of course, was the fact that Dr. Shirakawa had earlier received the same award, making for two in a row. These achievements provided us with confidence in our nation's intellectual abilities and greatly encouraged those who are working for "the establishment of a nation of innovative science and technology."
  When I was younger and read biographies of people such as Thomas Edison and Pierre and Marie Curie, I often thought about how brilliant and remarkable the inventors are whose work is worthy of a Nobel Prize. I am indeed honored to actually have the opportunity to speak with the two of you in person. When Dr. Noyori received his Nobel Prize and came to the Prime Minister's Residence for a chat over breakfast, I was deeply impressed with what a pleasant fellow he is. Dr. Shirakawa, whose work as a member of the Cabinet Office's General Council on Science and Technology has been so invaluable, has also charmed me with his kind and gentle character.
  I believe that both of these individuals adhere to the idea that original scientific research cannot develop from decisions based upon conventional ways of thinking. Unwilling to accept the idea that plastics cannot conduct electricity, Dr. Shirakawa successfully invented a plastic that could and received the Nobel Prize for his efforts.

"Conductive Plastics" are Widely Used
  Dr. Shirakawa - Although the discovery of a "conductive polymer" was said to be quite a novel accomplishment, the truth is that there were several people in the past who thought that electricity might pass through plastic or organic matter. Originally, I was seeking not to pass electricity through a plastic insulator, but to understand the "reactive mechanism" of polyacetylene, a plastic I happened to be handling.
  As my work progressed, a strange thing occurred. In order to understand this, I expanded my research and discovered that when I used a process called doping,4 electricity passed through it to a degree not unlike that of metal. In addition, since plastic can be easily shaped and applied to many different things, both basic research and applied research are being promoted simultaneously throughout the world.
  One example would be the electrodes on the small, coin-shaped batteries that are found inside the cellular telephones that everyone uses. Another would the small condensers, a fairly large portion of whose metal has been replaced with conductive plastic.
  Koizumi - What difference does replacing parts with plastic make?
  Shirakawa - The frequency characteristics are extremely good and reducing the size makes for less weight. Yet another example is the thin, liquid crystal displays [LCD] that are used in place of cathode ray tubes [CRT]. Liquid crystal displays cannot be viewed clearly unless they are illuminated from behind. Conductive plastics contain a substance that glows when voltage is applied to it. Because it is also possible to separate the three primary colors of light, a display can be achieved that differs hardly at all from that of a cathode ray tube. Make it into a thickness of about 1 millimeter and because it glows by itself, electricity can be conserved at well. In the near future, I believe it will be possible to make television monitors that can be mounted on a wall and retract and roll up like a screen.

Making Use of "Asymmetric Synthesis Reactions" in the Field of Medicine

  Koizumi - In talking with Dr. Noyori, I learned that the same substance within something can have both negative and positive aspects, or a "back" and a "front" as it were. The goal, I believe, is to extract only the good aspect.
  Dr. Noyori - My research focuses on the theme of the "right" and the "left" of molecules. Although they have the same length, mass, and physical energy, right and left are clearly different. In the world of molecules, this fact is very important. Take for example the aroma-producing chemicals in the orange juice that the Prime Minister is drinking right now. In fact, the orange juice is made using only the good-smelling ones. In the case of pharmaceutical products, the result is even more extreme. An example would be the thalidomide disaster 40 years ago.
  On its right side, thalidomide was an excellent tranquilizer. However, the teratogenicity of its left side caused many babies around the world to be born with congenital defects. While it is absolutely essential that left and right be clearly separated and sold as pharmaceuticals, the technology to do this did not exist at the time. In the present, we are able to make only right with right, or only left with left. As a result of this "asymmetric synthesis reaction," medicines worth 15 trillion yen are being produced around the world.
  In fact, the difference between right and left molecules is being applied to the liquid crystal displays that Dr. Shirakawa mentioned. LCDs are comprised of organic compounds arranged between two plates of glass. When an electric field is applied to them, molecules arranged right with right suddenly reverse themselves. This arrangement makes it possible to have sharp, high-definition images.
  Koizumi - It certainly seems as though the research that you two gentlemen have been doing is coalescing to produce impressive results. I am quite amazed. A major theme of research in the field of medicine is finding ways to eradicate cancer. The problem, of course, is that even if medicines are developed that attack cancer cells, they will likely end up killing healthy cells as well. After listening to Dr. Noyori, however, I believe that it is possible to develop medicines that destroy only malignant cells. Such a breakthrough would certainly come as a blessing for humankind.
  When I hear for myself how your research is making such important contributions to the fields of industry and medicine, I am truly moved.
  Noyori - Although some have said that our research was quite original, I think that my work and Dr. Shirakawa's work share the common trait of being conducted at the "root." In other words, when we first discovered a fundamental principle, we failed to realize how it might be applied in the future to industry. I actually made my discovery of the principle of asymmetric synthesis reactions more than 35 years ago!
  As I said before, it was thought impossible to distinguish between a substance's right and left molecules using the power of chemistry or physics. 150 years ago, the brilliant Pasteur (French scientist and specialist on microbes) claimed that "only living organisms can differentiate between right and left [molecules]." When this became possible [to distinguish between right and left molecules with chemistry or physics], we were extremely pleased. We simply never imagined that this academic "germinating research" would end up bringing us this far.
  I am very grateful for the support that the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology and other areas of the Japanese government provided for this kind of basic research. I also think that the "Basic Program for Science and Technology"5 (approved by cabinet decision in March of 2000) that the Prime Minister is promoting is extremely important. At the same time, however, we must keep in mind that the process of producing something from the budding of initial discovery can often take 25 or 30 years. While it is of course necessary to make use of existing academic or basic knowledge, determining how to find the root [of new research] is the most challenging task.
  Koizumi - So am I to understand that it was not Dr. Shirakawa's intention at first to make plastic conduct electricity?
  Shirakawa - There were, of course, several stages involved. However, it was something of a digression from the original goal. I suppose you could say that I wandered a bit from the main trail.
  Koizumi - You certainly chose a good path to get sidetracked onto. (laughter) Dr. Noyori, was it also the case with your research on right and left [molecules] that you did not necessarily begin with this problem in mind?
  Noyori - The objective at first was not to separate right and left [molecules]. I, too, made my discovery (of asymmetric synthesis reactions) as I was led by curiosity through my research. When I considered how my discovery might relate to this problem, however, I realized its true value.
  Shirakawa - Dr. Noyori's work and my work share in common the fact that while we began our research with set objectives in mind, we both ended up obtaining unexpected results and expanding upon those. Because it develops from personal interests, however, such a stage comes before one applies for competitive research funding. What sort of research funding did I use, then, to initially "hatch some eggs?" Actually, I had to rely upon the expense money that is provided to each member of the faculty at public universities. After using this to pay for education-related expenses and utilities such as electricity, heating, and water, I funnel the small amount that is left over into my research.
  Since these activities are so important, it can be problematic when too much is expected from researchers or when there is too much interference in their work. To put it somewhat crudely, we want to be given money and then left alone. This, however, is probably asking for too much. (laughter)
  Koizumi - Even though it is their work, it is essentially impossible for academics to engage in research they don't like. Instead of plodding along through research they fail to find interesting, it seems better for them to allow their own curiosity to lead them to important discoveries.
  Shirakawa - In an interview he gave when it was announced that he had been chosen to receive the Nobel Prize for chemistry, Dr. Noyori described an incident that I believe he said took place when he was in junior high school. At a lecture meeting he attended with his father (Kaneki Noyori, who worked at Kanegafuchi Chemical's research laboratory), Dr. Noyori was deeply impressed by a talk he heard on how nylon can be made from air, water, and coal.
  In my case as well, when I was asked as a third-year junior high school student to compose an essay about my dream for the future, I wrote that I wanted to become a chemist. My mother used to put warm rice into my lunch box and then wrap this in a polyvinyl chloride sheet. When I took this off at lunchtime, the sheet stayed in the shape of the box and did not return to its original shape. I thought at the time that although plastics and synthetic fibers are certainly useful, they remain rather imperfect materials. This realization ended up sparking my interest in this area. Dr. Noyori and I share in common the fact that we both became interested in plastics at a time when their use was spreading rapidly around the world and expectations in their potential as a new material were beginning to increase.
  Noyori - I believe that the basics of academic research are the same as those for art. At its "roots," its development is determined by the ideas and personal interests of those who engage in it. Of course, this alone is not enough. It is only after the ideas of many individuals have been linked and blended together that the true meaning emerges. I believe this was also the case with Dr. Shirakawa. Working as a chemist, he succeeded in developing a new type of plastic. After this, however, the value of this research was greatly increased by the cooperation he received from experts in the field of physics.
  The Prime Minister spoke earlier about cancer. Defeating cancer will require more than the efforts of only physicians or only chemists working in isolation. Even if something is developed that has the potential to wipe cancer out, its true value will be realized only through the collaboration of researchers in fields such as biology, medicine, and pharmacology.
  I believe that in order to exploit the potential of a single academic pursuit, an interdisciplinary approach, or a "synthesis of learning" as part of a wide network of cooperation is essential. Collaboration between "industry" and "academics" can be desirable as well. It is not useful simply to have university professors in possession of something they have created. With this in mind, I would be very grateful if the Prime Minister establishes a framework within which these things can be developed.
  Koizumi - I believe that there are many researchers in Japan who are expending great effort to invent and discover new things and that some of these individuals are likely in the future to receive Nobel prizes for their work. What is it that you would like to say to these junior colleagues?
  Shirakawa - The first step is to have an interest in something and to have questions about something.
  Noyori - In addition to that, I think it is extremely important to want to do something different from other people. Because bright people tend to enjoy competing with others with the goal of becoming the best, they often want to conduct research on topics that are already being investigated.
  Instead of this approach, however, I believe that work which is different from what others are doing is more likely to earn a place of respect in the future.
  Koizumi - But if you do things that are different from what others are doing, won't people call you "strange?" (laughter)
  Noyori - That would be alright, wouldn't it? I think that gifted competitors are often alienated. When people do unusual things, they are often sneered at in the beginning. When their work finally bears fruit, however, it receives respect. It is important to have a society that allows for this. I also think that it is critical that we nurture the development of young people who pursue this goal [of doing things differently from other people].
  Koizumi - If a person does something that is different from what others are doing, this may actually put other researchers at ease since they may not view the person as a rival.
  Noyori - If people don't worry too much about what others are thinking and simply hold on to their convictions and continue with their research, developments will occur in due time. And when they do, the work will gain the attention and respect of scientists around the world. I believe that academic pursuits are essentially like this. How, then, does one go about finding a topic? Although I think that pursuing a topic that is being explored in Europe or the United States is important for "short-range" research, I also believe that in the long run it is vital that research be pioneered in Japan that produces things unique to Japan.
  Koizumi - Out of hundreds of thousands, or millions really, of researchers, only one will actually be awarded a Nobel Prize. I wonder if there are lots of people who are conducting research in the hopes of receiving this award.
  Shirakawa - I don't think that there are many individuals doing research with this goal in mind. Rather, I believe that they are probably working very hard because they enjoy their research or think it is necessary. While I agree with what Dr. Noyori said about the importance of pursuing research that others are not pursuing, I think it is also necessary to explain one's research to colleagues and desirable to present it widely to foreign audiences as well.
  Noyori - In the academic world, people who discover something or begin something new as "founders," are often respected. Or, if a certain area of research is identified as being important, many people are likely to flood into it. In order to win this competition, I think it is necessary for the government as well to provide assistance.
  Koizumi - Has anything changed since you won the Nobel Prize and became the focus of the public's attention and hopes?
  Shirakawa - In March of the same year that I received the Nobel Prize (2000), I retired from my university post and my life as a researcher came to an end. At that point, I intended to begin building a new life for myself in society. As soon as the Nobel Prize was announced in October, however, I was forced to change my plans 180 degrees. While I'm still quite flustered, I have taken on a new role [as a member of the General Council on Science and Technology] and am well aware of my responsibilities.
  Noyori - I, like Dr. Shirakawa, feel as a member of society that I want to be of service both at home and abroad. I consider the many friends I have, especially those in other countries, to be one of my most precious possessions. I believe that the things I learned as a result of the contact I have had with these individuals have made my life very enjoyable indeed.
  I would like from this point forward as well to lead the same sort of life, but this will require that I continue with my research. Since it seems that I will be given a public post within the government, I wish to be of service in this capacity as well.
  Koizumi - I understand that when Dr. Noyori heard about the national goal of "producing 30 Nobel Prize winners in the next 50 years," he criticized this by saying that this "is very different from setting goals for Olympic gold medals."
  Noyori - So that I am not misunderstood, please allow me explain what I meant. I agree with the idea that Japan must maintain a world-class level of academic research. I also believe that we have sufficient human resources in this country to do this. However, I think it is in bad taste to pursue Nobel Prizes as a country. A prize is received in recognition of the results that someone has obtained through hard work in research. I don't think it is something that someone simply "goes out and gets."
  Shirakawa - It is true that the numerical target of "30 individuals" also appears in quotes in the government's Basic Program for Science and Technology. The phrase "basic research is important" is also contained in the text of the Basic Program. Unfortunately, high-profile areas that are "prioritized" or for which "competitive funding will be doubled" are emphasized more than less high-profile areas of basic research. Rather than alleviating the sense of crisis that exists among researchers, this language actually ended up intensifying it. This certainly makes me think about just how difficult expressing things can be.
  Koizumi - As a politician, I feel that a pledge to "produce approximately 30 Nobel Prize winners" is expressed in a form that is easy to understand. I certainly think that the role politics plays in creating an environment and a system in which Nobel Prize winners can develop is vitally important.
  In a discussion I had with Dr. Noyori, what he said about how "it is not necessary to strive to be 'number one'. Rather, it is better to work to be 'the only one.'" made a big impression on me. The point seems to be that when people seek to be "number one," competition intensifies and they may be shunned, alienated, or even bullied. However, when people try instead to be "the only one," they can accept each other as "strange" or "eccentric" and are free then to concentrate their energies on what they think is necessary or important.
  Noyori - Isn't it the case that being "the only one" can result in a person receiving recognition and respect?
  Shirakawa - I think so. Strange or eccentric individuals are accepted.
  Koizumi - I, too, am called a strange person, although I have managed to become accepted over time. (laughter)
  It took several decades of work before your accomplishments were recognized and you both received the Nobel Prize. With this in mind, it would certainly seem that developing human resources requires that one fix one's sights on the far future.
  Noyori - A point in time ten or twenty years in the future can seem very far away. However, that point in time will certainly be reached - and reached sooner than one often thinks. In the present, Japan finds itself in the midst of an immensely difficult situation encompassing both domestic and international spheres that constitutes a "national crisis" of sorts. I am referring to the crisis of its national leadership, including that of its industries, which has become extremely fragile. Stated differently, I wonder if we haven't been neglecting the development of human resources that provide the foundation of today's Japan. I would like to ask the government to formulate policies that promote the nurturing of strong, competent human resources.
  Shirakawa - When people speak of science and technology, the debate always shifts to discussions of researchers, university students, and university reform. But by these stages, it is too late. Compulsory education, meaning primary and secondary education, is also of great importance.
  Noyori - Education in the home is important as well.
  Shirakawa - When I was a child, and I believe it was the same for Dr. Noyori, people grew up not as only children, but with many brothers and sisters. I was responsible for cooking the rice and my siblings were given chores to do as well. There were also strict rules and discipline in our household. Outside of the house, younger and older children played together and there were community activities. It was there that we learned social rules as well. These things don't exist anymore.
  Noyori - I agree. In the past a sort of community was created within homes, neighborhoods, and schools. We lived in "the real world," so to speak. This helped us to strengthen our characters and to acquire knowledge.
  Koizumi - As we enter into the 21st Century, the inflation that we accepted in the past as inevitable has for the first time in the postwar period been replaced by deflation. Although many things have changed, the importance of creating goals for the future and deciding what should be done to achieve them remains the same. It is necessary for individuals in both the scientific community and in politics to have vision.
  Noyori - I am very pleased to see the efforts that the Prime Minister is making to consider Japan's future and promote reform. I would be very happy indeed if our Nobel Prizes provide some impetus for reform in the field of science.
  Koizumi - During my inaugural address to the Diet (May, 2001), I told the famous "100 sacks of rice" (kome hyappyo) story.6 I did so because of my belief in the importance of education. It was truly an honor to be able to talk today with two individuals who demonstrate the benefits of an excellent education so well. Thank you both very much.

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