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Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Groom Japan's gifted students

On April 11, the public broadcaster NHK's program "Close-up Gendai (Current Affairs)" took up the issue of the International Science Olympiads (ISOs) for middle- and high-school students. The competition tests knowledge in mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, informatics, astronomy and other areas of science. National rankings are based on average scores attained by students.

In the 2006 ISOs, China placed first in all subjects. Japan was far behind China and South Korea. China, South Korea and Vietnam are pushing policies of nurturing geniuses in sciences by providing economic aid and other benefits to participants in the ISOs.

Under the government's "income-doubling policy" launched in 1960, Japan promoted the development of science and technology, and rapidly increased the admission quotas at national universities' engineering departments. The fiscal 1956 Japanese economic white paper had said the domestic economy, which had been growing under the slogan of postwar reconstruction, should be boosted further by "innovation and transformation."

Although it increased admissions of engineering students and expanded research budgets, Japan, unlike China and South Korea, failed to provide special education in sciences for the gifted.

But for two years from 1945, the final year of World War II, Japan did give special education in science and mathematics for the gifted to nurture top scientists and engineers. On Sept. 9, 1944, the legislation for creating special classes was proposed to the House of Representatives by lawmaker Ryutaro Nagai and was enacted two days later.

On Dec. 26, 1944, the Education Ministry announced specific plans to introduce special classes each with 30 students at the higher normal school in Tokyo, Hiroshima and Kanazawa, and at the higher normal school for women in Tokyo. Students gifted in physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics were selected for enrollment in the classes from among fourth- to sixth-graders in elementary schools and first- to third-grade students in middle schools nationwide. Special classes were started in January 1945 at elementary and middle schools attached to the higher normal schools.

In April the same year, more special classes were started at Kyoto Prefectural No. 1 Middle School and at the elementary school attached to the Kyoto Normal School at the behest of Dr. Hideki Yukawa, professor at Kyoto University, who was to win the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1949, and other people.

The special classes taught not only mathematics, physics, chemistry and other science-related subjects but also a wide range of subjects including English, Japanese, Chinese classics and history. Lessons were broad-ranging and their levels were extremely high. Teachers from higher normal schools and Imperial universities taught at the special classes. A professor emeritus at Kyoto University whom I know was taught physics by Dr. Yukawa. Thus special classes to teach gifted children were institutionalized.

After the war ended, however, a decision was made in November 1946 to abolish the special education clases on the grounds that they were discriminatory and ran counter to democracy. In March 1947, it was terminated, only two years after its launch.

According to the NHK program "Close-up Gendai," only 30 percent of the Japanese ISO participants took up research jobs while 20 percent obtained jobs in the financial industry and another 20 percent became medical doctors.

Aside from medical doctors, many chose to take jobs in the financial industry for two reasons: pay is relatively good compared with the manufacturing industry and the financial industry has started employing a large number of graduates who majored in mathematics and mathematical engineering. Brokerages, banks and insurance companies need experts in financial engineering to develop new financial products. To learn the basics of financial engineering, knowledge of advanced mathematics is essential, which is much more than most economics majors can handle.

In order to attract gifted students to science and technology, it is necessary to raise the salaries for university professors and corporate researchers.

Meanwhile, Japanese educational authorities are pushing a contradictory policy of reducing the number of university teaching positions while expanding education at doctoral courses.

Students advancing to doctoral courses with the hope of becoming researchers in basic sciences such as mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology run a high risk of failing to find research jobs. Moreover, the pay for research jobs is by no means high. Therefore, many gifted students choose to advance to medical departments at universities after graduating from high school or to obtain jobs in the financial industry after completing the early part of doctoral courses in science.

In addition, the education authorities' increasing tendency to play down basic research at universities and place more emphasis on practical research and development is discouraging aspiring researchers in basic sciences. Research and development for immediate application and use should be relegated to companies.

In my opinion, the government should limit the use of funds for promotion of science to promotion of basic research. Since basic research does not require massive expenditures, the surplus fund accrued should be spent to increase the number of university teaching positions. The number of teachers with permanent tenure, rather than that of fixed-term researchers with doctorates should be increased, so that they can engage in research without hassle.

In order to further develop the Japanese economy and culture in a mature way, it is essential to nurture researchers in pure mathematics, theoretical physics, history, philosophy and other fields of nonpractical learning. However, after national universities were turned into independent administrative corporations, the assessment of a scholar's ability has come to depend on how much outside funds he or she can secure and nonpractical learning as mentioned above has been marginalized.

In the end, neglect of basic sciences will cause a decline in applied research and hurt the competitiveness of Japanese industries and even erode the nation's dignity.

Takamitsu Sawa is a professor at Ritsumeikan University's Graduate School of Policy Science and a specially appointed professor at Kyoto University's Institute of Economic Research.

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