In a bid to attract both global recognition and foreign scientists, last year Japan launched the World Premier International Research Center Initiative, or WPI. For 10 years, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) will pour ¥7 billion (roughly $70 million) annually into five new interdisciplinary institutes in cosmology, materials science, nanoscience, immunology, and the interface of cells and materials.

“Three Japanese scientists won Nobel Prizes this year. This is the kind of achievement [the Japanese government is] seeking,” says University of Maryland biologist Rita Colwell, the former head of NSF and a member of the WPI assessment committee. The initiative is “ambitious, but justifiably so,” she adds. “They are investing in areas of known strength.”

The WPI grew out of a government policy decision three years ago that requires, among other things, that Japan have around 30 world-class research institutions, says Shig Okaya, director of MEXT’s...

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