This is how to build excellent universities
When last year's Nobel laureate in Chemistry Ei-ichi Negishi was invited to a discussion about the future of KTH, it developed into an afternoon filled with both laughter and seriousness. The discussion was held as part of the work with KTH's vision 2027 and was initiated by the Dean Sophia Hober.
The ideal research group consists of up to eight people, according to Ei-ichi Negishi. Admittedly, a larger network may be needed when the research is to be commercialized. But basically it is the individual researcher who stands for true excellence, according to the chemistry prize winner.
Ei-ichi Negishi was awarded the prize in chemistry along with Richard F. Heck and Akira Suzuki. He will now lead the new research institute The Negishi-Brown Institute at his home university, Purdue University.
So far, it is a completely virtual institution, but with the goal of developing physical activity, he says. He also coordinates a large number of professors at various Japanese colleges.
“But my own group is now down to zero people,” he says, laughing.
He has lived and worked in the USA since the 1960s. The most important time was when he was working under Professor Herbert C. Brown, who received the Nobel Prize in 1979 along with Georg Wittig.
“Way back in 1962 I listened to a lecture he held and thought that one day he will receive the Nobel Prize. But we had to wait 17 years before it became a reality,” says Ei-ichi Negishi.
Ten steps to success
His own early work, he describes as piecemeal, "far too independent".
“I chose Purdue University only because Brown was there. And it is individuals that are most important in terms of a university's excellence. It is excellent individuals who create excellence, nothing more nothing less,” says Ei-ichi Negishi.
Besides Sophia Hober, the professors Olof Ramström, Per Claesson, Björn Birgisson, Stefan Östlund, Mats Engwall and Christina Moberg also participated in the discussion. Throughout the discussion, Ei-ichi Negishi avoided any sweeping generalisations, and instead took some concrete examples from his own research career.
Among other things he spoke about the article he published entitled "Conditions for Discovery" in which he explains the ten steps towards successful research. Among the first steps is the need, but also the dream for change.
“But you also need excellence in the form of knowledge and ideas,” he emphasized.
Vent for curiosity
Talented researchers are able to express their own curiosity and dreams by finding the right community needs, he also added.
“Certainly, there is a contrast between needs-driven research and curiosity-based research. But the really good scientists can refine their curiosity to fulfil a need. Much of the research that was carried out during World War II which was of benefit to society came about in that way,” says Ei-ichi Negishi
He himself struggled early on in search for his own success, among other things, by attending as many lectures as he could that were held by former Nobel laureates. Sometimes it meant long hours in the car together with other curious colleagues visiting various universities in the United States.
“At the same time, the University of Pennsylvania attracted many previous Nobel Prize winners and offered a great curriculum. Overall, there was a platform that provided excellent support,” he says.
And even a future Nobel Prize winner must have permanent research funding in the back of his mind. When Negishi ran his own group, funding was always an important factor with regard to the work.
“I knew the day I received funding, it was also time to start thinking about the next application,” he says.
Text: Magnus Trogen