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Giving demonstration lectures in Japan


Japanese universities
Norman Greenwood Scientist
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Now north of Tokyo is Sendai, which has been much in the news, of course, lately because of the tsunami, but the university there is again an excellent university.

I should perhaps not only give a travelogue, if I can put it that way, of the places, but mention something about the university system, because that is somewhat different from ones that we are used to in Europe.

There are the National or Imperial universities as they were called, which were from the Imperial Foundation. And there are half a dozen of those and they are the top-crust universities. All excellent universities, in some areas world leaders, and people aspire to those, but of course the competition to get in is enormous.

But there are many other universities, some state owned, but many private universities, private philanthropists or business organisation, many sources of finance. But in the ones that I visited – and I’m talking now mainly about the research area – there is an interesting characteristic, which I may have got wrong because, as I say, I’ve only visited the place, but on several occasions, I formed an impression that the system works something like this.

It’s what’s called a ‘Cosa’ system, so that a professor has an institute, or at least a group of people around him, and there is quite a hierarchy underneath that of assistants and then graduate students and so forth. And in that way the professor in charge of the Cosa decides the programme, and works on it and gets the appropriate facilities, but the people who are being trained underneath it of course also aspire to promotion.

When the professor leaves, sometimes the Cosa is so highly developed around a particular theme and instrumentation, that the only person that can take over is one of the assistants, or someone who’s working in a closely-related system elsewhere. And I had the feeling that that may have been a stultifying influence.

One of the glories of, at least the older universities in the UK, for example, is that in principle, and very much in fact as well, even a lecturer is an independent research worker. He may be associated with another person or in a group or doing related work, but is independent and certainly by the time one is a Professor, you are independent in choosing the work that you would want to do and can get funding to do.

And doing that it means, as I think I’ve illustrated with my work, I can change, not on a whim, but if I hear the word, ‘Mössbauer’, and find out what that is, I can straightaway decide that’s something that is worth doing, and if I can get funds for it from supporting agencies, I can do that. That I think is not so easy to do in the Japanese system.

Norman Greenwood (1925-2012) was born in Australia and graduated from Melbourne University before going to Cambridge. His wide-ranging research in inorganic and structural chemistry made major advances in the chemistry of boron hydrides and other main-group element compounds. He also pioneered the application of Mössbauer spectroscopy to problems in chemistry. He was a prolific writer and inspirational lecturer on chemical and educational themes, and held numerous visiting professorships throughout the world.

Listeners: Brian Johnson

Professor Brian FG Johnson FRS, FRSE, FRS Chem, FAcad Eu, FAS. Professor of Inorganic Chemistry University of Edinburgh 1991-1995, Professor of Inorganic Chemistry University of Cambridge 1995-2005, Master Fitzwilliam College Cambridge 1999-2005. Research interests include studies of transition metal carbonyls, organometallic chemistry, nano- particles and homogeneous catalysis. Professor Johnson is the author of over 1000 research articles and papers.

Tags: Japan, Tokyo, Sendai, Europe, UK, Toho University

Duration: 3 minutes, 52 seconds

Date story recorded: May 2011

Date story went live: 25 November 2011