Nobel Prize-Winning Chemist Ryōji Noyori: “What one person can invent is very limited. An important aspect of innovation is to devise a system and ways to use scientific knowledge”
Ryōji Noyori on chemistry as an integral element of human survival, science in Japan’s prosperity and supranational cooperation against global problems
Japanese chemist Ryōji Noyori became interested in chemistry at an early age when he visited a presentation on nylon. Chemistry can “produce high value from almost nothing” he said after the presentation. In 2001, Noyori and his two American colleagues won the Nobel Prize for their research in organic chemistry that revolutionized the pharmaceutical industry. His study of asymmetric hydrogenation is used today in the production of some antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs. He has also developed a method of commercial synthesis of menthol. As a result, our breath stays fresh and Takasago International produces up to 3,000 tonnes of menthol per year. Meanwhile, the scientist modestly says that this is the result of many years of research conducted by the scientific family of Nagoya University and many other research initiatives in organic chemistry.
Since 2003, Prof. Noyori has chaired RIKEN, one of the oldest and most respected natural science institutes in Japan, which employs approximately 3,000 scientists in chemistry, physics, biology, medicine, engineering, IT and more. RIKEN’s annual budget is nearly USD 760mn, directed towards research that can potentially be widely applied in practice.
Prof. Noyori believes that today’s global problems, including uncontrolled population growth, climate change, the exhaustion of natural resources and new infections, pose a threat to the survival of homo sapiens. Science must help humanity to overcome these challenges. To do so, it must go beyond state borders and transform from research for researchers into research for nations and mankind. “It is not enough to support the civilization of today”, he claims. “We should lay the path to a flexible future society for our successors.” And he encourages scientists to be politically active. “Researchers must spur public opinions and government policies toward constructing the sustainable society in the 21st century.”
The Ukrainian Week talked to the scientist during his visit to deliver a lecture in Kyiv on July 22.
UW: How long was it between you making your discovery and its implementation in the pharmaceutical industry and medicine?
This depended on the reaction I discovered. Sometimes, it took just three years, while in other cases, such as with Sumitomo Chemical and their Olyset Net chain (using the permethrin combination discovered by Noyori as an insecticide in mosquito nets and fighting malaria in Africa), it took 47 years. I was working at Nagoya University and had not set myself the goal of developing new drugs. However, I was always surrounded by many people involved in this industry, who sought practical applications for the chemical reactions I developed. What one person can invent is very limited. An important aspect of innovation is to devise a system and ways to use scientific knowledge.
UW: How did the focus on a research-oriented economy help Japan overcome post-WWII difficulties and grow into one world’s most innovative and competitive countries? What role did discoveries in chemistry play in this process?
Cooperation between universities and the industry was very important in the process. When I was young, this cooperation was much closer than it is now. Japan was a very poor country after the war and many people joined efforts and contributed to making it wealthier. Today, Japan is as developed as the US and European countries. There are many government programmes financing research developments. Now, scientists in Japanese universities can do their research without industry. In my opinion, government support for scientific progress is extremely important and should be increased in the future. Ukraine is a young country and would benefit from establishing fruitful cooperation between universities and companies.
UW: You are considered to be one of the promoters of green chemistry. What are its prospects?
Chemistry truly gives very much to society. Most things surrounding people today in everyday life are made up of chemical elements. However, we have to think carefully which chemical combinations will be used to produce different products. The concept of chemistry as a science is to use natural or biological resources to create something new through chemical reactions. These processes always have a certain amount of byproducts. For instance, the production of 1kg of drugs (those necessary to keep people alive) generates 25 to 100kg of byproducts. Therefore, a balance must be found between the product’s effect and the amount of byproducts it generates. The key task of chemists is to decrease this amount and save energy. If we don’t do this, not only will our economy stagnate but humanity will cease to exist.
UW: What is the role of chemistry in dealing with global problems?
Different countries have different terms for sustainable development. Japan, for instance, does not have significant energy resources, such as oil, gas or even coal, so it has to import them. Since this requires a lot of financial resources, we are forced to be one of the most developed countries in the world in terms of chemistry. It is only through the export of technologies that Japan can afford to import these resources. Since starting conditions vary for each country and natural resources are limited (this is perfectly obvious from a chemical perspective), countries need to cooperate more closely in order to ensure the more sustainable development of humanity. Human survival is a very complicated thing. The previous century was one of rivalry. In the 21st century, we will have to cooperate for our species to survive. All countries have their own history and perspective of different events. But now is the time when no country in the world, be it the US, China, Russia, Brazil or any other, will survive alone.
Ryōji Noyori is a Japanese chemist. He won the Nobel Prize in 2001 jointly with William S. Knowles for the study of chirally catalyzed hydrogenations, the second half of the prize going to Barry Sharpless for research on chirally catalyzed oxidation reactions. The results are now used in the pharmaceutical industry. Prof. Noyori has chaired RIKEN, the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research of Japan, since 2003. He was member of the Science and Technology Council at the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology since 1996 and Chairman of the Education Rebuilding Council at the Government of Shinzō Abe since 2006. In 1972, Mr. Noyori became Professor of Nagoya University. He is also an Honorary Professor at universities and research institutions in Germany, France, the USA and Russia.