Association Affairs

Japan's universities open up to the world

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Science  31 Jul 2015:
Vol. 349, Issue 6247, pp. 488-489
DOI: 10.1126/science.349.6247.488

Research and education at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University are conducted in English.

PHOTO: OIST/GINTER

A devastating natural disaster, a dire need to internationalize its universities, and lucrative funding programs have ushered in a renaissance of science communication in a country better known for its corporate R&D. Leading the pack is a small, young university on a resort island 400 miles south of Japan's mainland, the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) Graduate University.

Capitalizing on its strengths—English is OIST's official language, and half of its 400 researchers are overseas recruits—OIST has set out to communicate its achievements globally. An international internship program brings science and communications grads on campus to interview researchers and write about their work. And the use of its fully bilingual website, social media, and news distribution services like the AAAS-operated EurekAlert! has helped OIST punch above its weight in garnering foreign media attention.

That's good news for OIST, as the Japanese government is increasingly telling universities to step up internationalization and science communication—and rewarding them handsomely for doing so.

Compared to other world-class universities, Japanese institutions can be cloistered places, where Japanese is the dominant language, even in funding applications and conference proceedings. This isolation has taken its toll: Only two of Japan's 781 universities made it within the top 100 in the 2015 Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

Japan's Top Global University Project, launched last year by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), aims to boost the global standing of 37 institutions by offering a total of 7.7 billion yen over 10 years to increase international exchange and the number of foreign faculty and students. A year earlier, MEXT committed up to 400 million yen per year over 10 years to 22 institutions. The funds are earmarked for the hiring of University Research Administrators (URAs), who perform myriad roles within the research enterprise, from strategic planning, to partnership development, to communications.

For the sizable number of URAs newly assigned to improve communication, on-the-job training has become a top priority. Through the Research University Network of Japan, URAs and press officers from 25 universities have banded together to share expertise and find solutions. More than 30 communicators traveled to the 2015 AAAS Annual Meeting in San Jose, CA, and more than 60 attended a 29 May workshop in Tokyo, which included case studies of how universities have used EurekAlert!'s redesigned Japanese news portal to disseminate their bilingual press releases to the site's global audience that includes some 11,000 science journalists.

“There is some anxiety but even greater enthusiasm to learn,” said Amane Koizumi, a professor at the National Institutes of Natural Sciences, who organized both gatherings. “But we're taking our first baby steps towards greater internationalization.”

The push for more and better science communication had been iterated in the government-endorsed 4th Science and Technology Basic Plan, with an aim to secure public support for S&T innovation. The emphasis took on even greater urgency after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and the subsequent Fukushima nuclear accidents.

In a study conducted a year after the earthquake, published in the Journal of Science Communication, more than 70% of nearly 2000 Japanese parents said that they felt anxious about the risks of low-dose radiation. Respondents rated academic institutions and publications as the second-most trustworthy source of information (behind credible media outlets such as public broadcaster NHK), but often described them as inaccessible. This and other studies have also shown that public trust in scientists declined sharply after the disaster.

Hiroshima University, a recipient of both MEXT funding programs, wants to change that. It has assigned five URAs to support international science communication and is also recruiting an international intern. Senior URA Norifumi Miyokawa said that while faculty have been positive about doing media outreach—some have been contacted by industries, other researchers, and media from within and outside Japan as a result—“the role of the public information officer is still not well understood, and we need more staff specialized in public relations.”

One challenge, said Motoko Kakubayashi, a press officer at University of Tokyo's Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe, is that science communication is still a new concept in Japan, and while resources have been promised, there are “very few or no permanent positions for science communicators.”

But there is no shortage of scientists willing to communicate. A 2013 survey of 9000 scientists, conducted by Koizumi for the Japan Science and Technology Agency's Center for Science Communication, showed that 71% of respondents agreed with the government's plan to improve communication with the public, and nearly 65% said that they were already doing it. More than 80% cited a sense of responsibility as their main reason for public outreach.

“[For faculty], there are no advantages to doing communication,” Kakubayashi said. “The ones who do it, do it voluntarily because they're passionate about their research and want to raise awareness of their field.”

Hiromi Yokoyama, an associate professor at the University of Tokyo's School of Science and author of the Journal of Science Communication study, added: “There is no doubt that interactive science communication activities between scientists and the public have contributed to advancing the public democratic debate.”

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