So cool, Prof Yamanaka!



There were two terrible flaws with official Japanese attitudes to stem-cell research, he said. To illustrate the first, he pulled out a 500-page wodge of paper. This, he said, is what I have to fill out in triplicate every time the laboratory wants to use a single human embryonic stem cell for a single experiment. Then it takes a month to write and another month for the government to process, by which time a rival lab in the UK might have done the experiment a dozen times. "If this lab wanted to be competitive," he said, "I would have to get rid of one scientist and put two full-time paperwork administrators in their place."

The answer, he said, was to find a way of producing stem cells synthetically and giving labs like his around the world the chance to to what they should be doing - saving lives rather than civil servants' jobs.

His second attack was on the dangerous fickleness of Japan's Health Ministry - a fault that effectively forced hugely promising long-term scientific projects either to be squeezed uncomfortably into too short a space of time or abandoned due to lack of funding. The problem, said the Prof, was that the bureaucratic head of the ministry changed every three years or so. As each new chap comes in, he feels the need to stamp his influence on the direction of scientific research, and devises a new funding budget. This budget, said Yamanaka, is drawn-up on a non-scientific whim and consistently diverts money away from existing projects (no matter how successful or world-changing) and into new ones. Basically, he said, if you can't complete your project in three years, forget it.