Changing the world

2010 Nobel Prize Winner in Chemistry

He gave a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan today, which I was privileged to attend.

He is 80 and energetic, with a dry wit, self-effacing, confident yet modest, the epitome of a virtuous Japanese nobleman.

He is Akira Suzuki, 2010 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry and Emeritus Professor at Hokkaido University.

Akira Suzuki, together with Richard Heck and Ei-ichi Negishi, won the Nobel Prize for “for palladium-catalyzed cross couplings in organic synthesis.” If you are a chemist, you will understand what that means. If you’re not, like most of us, you will be impressed with the loftiness of the scientific description but be clueless as to its significance in real-world application.

What these scientists innovated was a way to use the catalyst palladium, so that in its presence carbon reacts more easily, the so-called ‘Suzuki reaction’. It is used in chemistry labs and pharmaceutical companies around the world and has produced many applications, including fluorescent marking used in DNA sequencing and the production of more effective drugs to counter high blood pressure. Professor Suzuki joked that a doctor had recently discovered that the Nobel Laureate had high blood pressure and prescribed an anti-hypertension drug that his research had influenced. He never obtained patents on his invention and half-jokingly remarked that at the Stockholm award festivities for the Nobel Prize many participants thanked him for his unselfish contribution to the world. He was proud that anti-hypertension drugs utilizing his innovation are used by 3.5 million people in Japan and 22 million people worldwide.

Professor Suzuki did not especially want to discuss chemistry at the press conference. Rather, his interest was in discussing how to reignite a spirit of innovation in Japan in science and technology through educational reform. Central to his message was to encourage Japanese young people to study abroad, as he did (at Purdue University). He felt it unfortunate that in general Japanese companies continue to prefer hiring of science graduates with bachelor’s degrees rather than those with advanced degrees, believing that they (the companies) can best educate new hires themselves on-the-job up to a doctorate level. The MBA holder is sought in Japan by company recruiters but PhD holders are far less so.

Professor Suzuki commented that the level of education in Japan in chemistry was high but study overseas adds great value in helping young Japanese scientists and engineers master English, gain exposure to diverse perspectives, and learn different ways of thinking. He lamented the gap between the quality of research produced in Japan and the level of commercial applications of that research, and recommended that companies put people with scientific and engineering backgrounds in the management of companies to close the gap.

He talked about the different circumstances in Japan when he went abroad, in the post-war period when Japanese were “hungry,” and today’s environment in which young Japanese are more comfortable and less “aggressive.” Professor Suzuki made reference to the frontier spirit at the University of Hokkaido when he was a boy and the contribution of William S. Clark, as a government-invited advisor to establish the Sapporo Agricultural College (presently Hokkaido University, where he was appointed Vice-President).

Professor Clark’s advice to his Japanese students was: “Boys be ambitious!”

Japan has great strength in science and technology. It has ranked 2nd or 3rd in the world for the number of research papers published and citations in these fields. Now is the time for young Japanese— “boys and girls”—to embody Professor Clark’s famous motto (and Professor Suzuki’s exhortatin):

Be ambitious! Innovation is not a risk-free enterprise.

All the best,

Warren J. Devalier

©2011 Warren J. Devalier