When I was doing some refresher Japanese language training before taking up this job I told my teacher that I wanted to learn a bit of life sciences vocab. I anticipated (rightly) that I might find myself wanting to extol the virtues of the UK as a base for pharmaceutical research or as a source of clinical services for Japanese companies and wanted to at least be able to ask some intelligent questions. She duly looked out some articles for me. I think it's fair to say that the vocabulary was the least of my problems. It was more the science of induced pluripotent stem-cells that made my head spin.
But last week all my earnest study came into its own when Professor Yamanaka of Kyoto University was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his work on iPS stem cell research - and to my gratification I was able to follow all the news coverage. There was plenty of it to follow too: Japanese media went into overdrive. TV programmes were interrupted to bring us the news. Special newspaper supplements were published within minutes and handed out free on the streets of Tokyo. The Prime Minister rang Professor Yamanaka to congratulate him, live on TV. Donations to his JustGiving site, where he'd been collecting for a sponsored marathon run, soared. We were told exactly how the story had been reported in Russia, the US, China. There were also interviews with Sir John Gurdon of Cambridge and formerly Oxford University, whose own work in the 1960s had laid the foundations for Professor Yamanaka's research and who was awarded the same honour.
So yes, this was big news. It's actually not unusual for scientific breakthroughs to top news bulletins in Japan. Successful scientists are regarded as national heroes, on a par with the baseball players who make it big in the Major League. It's good to see a country that fetes its scientists in this way.
Anyway, the news was a fitting backdrop to my week, which had a strong life sciences theme. Sir Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust and the Government's next Chief Scientific Adviser, gave a presentation at my house about the work of the Trust to an audience of Japanese academics and corporate researchers (the current CSA, Sir John Beddington, was in Japan as well, as it happened, chairing the first official Nuclear Dialogue between the UK and Japan – I wonder what the collective noun is for Scientific Advisers?). I also called on a Japanese company that had recently visited the UK to think about setting up a research operation and had been very impressed by the vision and partnership underpinning the new Francis Crick Institute. And we held meetings with GSK and Astra Zeneca seeking their support for a Life Sciences Week that we're organising in February next year. Both companies have kindly agreed to provide briefing and mentoring to UK life sciences companies new to the Japanese market, and to share some of their experience of doing business here.
The week will include a trade mission to Japan, seminars and an exhibition for companies to introduce their technologies and services to potential customers and partners, exchange of healthcare policy and practices of UK and Japan - a thorny topic for both countries - and a neuro-science symposium. The theme throughout will be drug discovery and development, and if your company is in that field and would be interested in participating we'd very much like to hear from you. Just drop us a line on firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll be glad to talk through the opportunities. To whet your appetite take a look at this introduction from the life sciences experts in our teams in Tokyo and Osaka
We can't guarantee you prime time TV coverage on your first visit, but you'll certainly be greeted with respect by a country that values science!