Basic science key to Nobel PrizeThis year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine went to scientists John Gurdon of Britain and Shinya Yamanaka of Japan for their work on developing transplant tissues to treat diseases like Parkinson’s without causing ethical concerns regarding the use of human embryos. Yamanaka, a professor of Kyoto University, received the prize just six years after his discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells that closely resemble embryonic stem cells and are derived from adult mice. The discovery was first shared with the world through Nature in 2007. Yamanaka’s method of reprogramming adult skin cells as an alternative to embryonic stem cells circumvented the destruction of embryos and sidestepped ethical barriers to the advancement of stem cell technology. The pluripotent stem cells also paved the way for a new generation of laboratory studies and customized tissue development.
With Yamanaka, Japan has produced 15 Nobel Prize-winning scientists, 11 of them since 2000. Their research bases have stretched beyond the elite Kyoto and Tokyo universities to campuses in Nagoya, Hokkaido, Tohoku and Nagasaki. Yamanaka, a graduate of Kobe University, was recruited to Kyoto University following his stem cell discovery.
Every time the Swedish prize announces its annual winners, Koreans cannot hide their envy and disappointment. We again have become part of the audience applauding a Japanese scientist’s achievement. Koreans outnumbered Japanese among foreign students attending American universities and graduate schools last year. The number of Koreans who received doctorates in science from U.S. institutions totaled 1,137 in 2010, overwhelming Japan’s 235. Yet the country has failed to produce a single Nobel Prize winner in the field. It is a poor record for a country unmatched in its education zeal with the 12th-largest economy in the world.
In his press conference, Yamanaka said he had received research assistance of 5 billion yen ($64 million), even as his country’s economy recovered from an earthquake, tsunami and prolonged recession. His work should be jointly credited to Japan’s commitment to basic science for the future and the persistent devotion by an individual genius. He is also a byproduct of Japan’s systematic and home-grown program of fostering scientists. Japan’s Nobel laureates in science mostly finish their doctorate process in Japan and return to local universities after post-doctorate studies overseas.
Our campus labs are shunned because students prefer application and engineering science over research-oriented fields. Korea once led in stem cell research and now lags behind Japan. Korea last year established the Institute of Basic Science with a budget of 10 billion won ($8.9 million) for research funding for scientists. We hope it serves as an incubator for future groundbreaking discoveries worthy of Nobel recognition. Our scientists should learn from the winners’ devotion as well as their passion.