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Making science sexier

In Japan, the country that gave the world innovations such as instant noodles and the Sony Walkman, science has always been seen as a profession that is supposed to produce something useful. The Japanese celebrate the tinkerers and technicians, the no-nonsense types who built the postwar economic dynamo.

Pure scientists, cloistered away in underfunded labs and pursuing their dreamy theories, have never caught the national imagination. They just aren’t practical enough.

So it has been a particularly sweet time for those Japanese scientists since researcher Shinya Yamanaka announced in November that he had cracked one of science’s toughest challenges: creating the equivalent of human stem cells with a technique that does not require destroying an embryo.

The discovery has turned Yamanaka, 45, into a most unlikely phenomenon in Japan: a celebrity scientist. Media crews stormed his lab at Kyoto University. The government has paid millions of dollars to continue the research.

Only Yamanaka has seemed bored by the fuss, a bit irritated even. He resents taking time away from his work to explain the details of his discovery to laymen over and over. He’d rather be back in his lab, turning his discovery into a practical medical technology that can help people. “I was a physician before I became a scientist,” Yamanaka said. “I am mostly interested in what this discovery can do for patients.”

Yamanaka’s determination to show he is only in it for the public good, even in what should be his moment of glory, fits with how the Japanese expect their scientists to behave. Humble. Disdainful of wealth.

They want them to be like neuroscientist Ryuta Kawashima, who turned his ideas on how to stave off senility into a huge industry of books and video games on brain training. Sure, Kawashima likes to brag — that he hasn’t taken any of the millions in royalties he’s entitled to. He doesn’t even want to take a vacation, he says, preferring to devote every available hour to helping the elderly.

Not everyone thinks the emphasis on modesty is a good thing. They wonder whether the limited personal recognition might be one reason young Japanese are turned off from careers in science. The science establishment has recognised the problem and is taking the first steps to make changes, pushing for the appointment of younger scientists to top jobs rather than relying on the traditional seniority system.

The idea is to make science sexier.

“We have heroes in sports, and I always thought that scientists have personal stories that could make them heroes, too,” said Shiro Segawa, a Waseda University professor of science journalism. “But public interest is pretty limited.”

Segawa noted that the model scientist in the postwar years was Hideki Yukawa, a physicist who in 1949 won Japan’s first Nobel Prize and was famous for his modesty.

“We were taught that science is a philosophy, more like music or art,” said Shigeyuki Koide, science editor of the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper. “To the Japanese, science is supposed to be about pleasure, not fame.”

Those who have gone looking for recognition and reward risk ostracism.

Take the case of Shuji Nakamura, inventor of the blue light-emitting diode that opened the way for massive energy savings in light production. Nakamura made his discovery in 1993 while working for Nichia Corp. The company gave him a $180 bonus. Nakamura complained that he was being treated like a slave.

He left Japan in 1999 for a posit ion at the University of California, Santa Barbara, but two years later launched a lawsuit against his former employer. The Japanese public was split on the lawsuit, Koide said. Some sympathised with the plight of a low-paid worker under the thumb of his corporate employer. Others were appalled by what they saw as an unseemly grasp for wealth.

“He chose the American way, not the Japanese way,” sniffed Yoshiro Nakamatsu, a prolific inventor with more patents to his name than anyone in history. “The purpose of science and invention is love, not making money,” Nakamatsu said. “I made my first inventions out of love for my mother. Then I made inventions for the love of the people and the nation. Japanese scientists should not care about whether they become famous.”

That culture may explain why the Japanese public embraced Koichi Tanaka, an electrical engineer who shared in the 2002 Nobel Prize for chemistry. Tanaka was also working for a private company when he discovered — almost accidentally, he says — a method for improving technologies that analyse proteins, a process that can be used for earlier detection of some cancers. He, too, was granted a meagre bonus.

But Tanaka never complained. Instead, he shared credit with co-workers and praised the company for giving him the freedom to experiment. “I am unfortunately too popular in Japan,” he told an interviewer when he accepted the Nobel. “I want to go back to my normal life before I received the prize.”

Yamanaka is cut from that same self-effacing mould. But what separates him from other Japanese scientists is that his discovery, his dreamy theory, occurred in one of the hottest fields. Being able to create the equivalent of stem cells opens the way to cures for an incredible number of diseases. It could revolutionise medicine. Change the lives of millions.

Useful stuff.

“Some day I hope we can even treat baldness,” he said. “That’s my dream.”

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