Japan's New Okinawa Institute Officially Becomes Graduate University

A zebrafish facility at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology.

Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology

A budding new Japanese graduate school backed by the likes of Nobel laureates Sydney Brenner, Susumu Tonegawa, Jerome Friedman, and others has cleared the last hurdle required to start teaching. Earlier today Japan's cabinet officially approved the law formally recognizing the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) Graduate University. The school will welcome its first batch of students in September 2012.

Proposed in 2001, OIST started operations as a research institute in 2005 with a handful of scientists working in borrowed space, with Brenner serving as president and a board of governors stacked with scientific luminaries, including five Nobel laureates. OIST supporters, including domestic politicians and scientists, want to shake up Japan's universities by creating a new academic model emphasizing interdisciplinary research. It is also attempting to attract non-Japanese faculty members by using English for teaching and administrative affairs. The OIST Graduate University will start its academic years in September, instead of in April as is Japanese custom, to be more in sync with international norms. The institute is also charged with boosting the economy of Okinawa, Japan's least developed prefecture.

Jonathan Dorfan, a physicist and former director of what is now the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California, becomes the university's first president on 1 November when the enabling law takes effect. But he has been on the job as president-elect since July 2010, overseeing the development of curriculum and the push to complete faculty recruitment. OIST claims to have attracted numerous academics at the top of their fields from institutions in Japan, the United States, and Europe. Meanwhile in spring 2010, OIST moved to its permanent home—a hillside campus in the village of Onna with stunning views of the East China Sea hosting a collection of buildings designed by Kornberg Associates, a San Diego-based firm headed by Kenneth Kornberg, the son and brother of Nobel laureates. Dorfan's next challenge will be convincing students he really is turning this subtropcal tourist destination into a haven for education and research.