THE BLOG
03/03/2015 09:53 GMT | Updated 02/05/2015 06:59 BST

How Japan Produces Scientists Worthy of a Nobel Prize in the 21st Century

For 2014, three Japanese scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their development of the light emitting diode (LED), a revolutionary invention that has become the new standard in lighting for its energy efficiency and environmental friendliness.

With a strong foundation in science education, it comes as no surprise that Japan churns out exceptionally brilliant scientists who study and research to come up with technologies from both fundamental and applied sciences. And then go on to become Nobel Laureates. To date, there are 19 Japanese and Japanese-born recipients of the Nobel Prize in physics, chemistry and physiology or medicine. Of these, 14 were awarded in the year 2000 onwards.

A key factor to molding people who excel in their field of study is their education, starting from the basics in primary school up to their graduate and doctoral studies. Taking a look at the world's top-ranked universities, Japan universities always make it to the any list, such as The University of Tokyo, Kyoto University and Nagoya University, to name some. But it wasn't always so.

In an editorial by Hiroo Imura, then Kyoto University president, for Science Magazine in October 1996, observed that breakthrough technologies must be developed in Japan if it wants to continue its economic progress. But a societal orientation that seeks only to improve the fundamental technology it learned from the United States or Europe is a hindrance to innovative technology.

Also in 1996, in a paper on "Developments in Japanese Science Curriculum" by Victor J. Mayer, Professor Emeritus of The Ohio State University, the professor cited Troost, 1985 p.13 which noted the general perception that the quantity and quality of Japanese science education for all students is more successful than the American counterpart.

The changing global conditions including the end of the Cold War in 1991 spurred Japan's Ministry of Education, Science, Sports and Culture (Monbusho) to reexamine its educational policies, especially with regards to primary and secondary education. In revising these policies, a survey was done to determine the current educational status. One issue that raised a concern with Monbusho is the school children's "drift away from science and technology." Hence, the Ministry, in order to improve science education programs and increase science literacy of the Japanese, expanded elective subjects for grades seven, eight and nine, and created 13 science courses for grades 10 to 12, with emphasis on problem solving disciplines.

In addition, the Science and Technology Basic Law was enacted in 1995 by the Diet (Japan's bicameral legislature) to "achieve a higher standard of S&T" and thereby improve the economy of Japan and contribute to the progress of S&T worldwide. A Basic Plan was created by the Council for Science and Technology to support the Basic Law. The plan includes increase in research grants from the government, upgrading of research facilities, and more support staff and fellowship programs.

The Ministry and the Japanese government recognize that producing highly competent scientists is not achieved overnight. It takes years of intense focus and single-minded dedication to a specific area of research and perseverance in the face of criticisms and setbacks.

Unfortunately for Korea, Japan's fierce rival in almost everything, the pursuit for a Nobel Prize has been unsuccessful so far. The current educational programs are not helping either. In a 2013 article in the Korea JoongAng Daily, a teacher laments that during a regular high school science class, one third of the students are focused on their smartphones.

In spite of calls for reforms to the two-track educational system wherein a student can choose between humanities and science after the 10th grade, the Korea Ministry of Education deferred discussing such a move until 2018. The government, instead of supporting STEM education, divided the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology into two - the Ministry of Education and a separate Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning - leading to the disappearance of some science programs. In the Academic Ranking of World Universities, Seoul University, Korea's no. 1, is in the 101 - 150 of 500 universities in 2012. Japan's University of Tokyo and Kyoto University placed 21 and 26 respectively.

With a dim prospect in the realm of science and technology, is it realistic for South Korea to produce a Nobel Laureate in the near future?