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Science in a changing world

16 Mar 2018
Taken from the March 2018 issue of Physics World

Japan has traditionally been strong in science and technology, but Tateo Arimoto calls for the country to reform if it wants to stay ahead

Photo of a young woman using virtual-reality goggles in Tokyo
Technology matters Innovation is vital to Japan, but the country must not lose sight of basic science. (Courtesy: iStock/xavierarnau)

“The Internet has many benefits for society but also the potential to destroy the authenticity of modern society and modern science.” Those remarks were made by the renowned electrical engineer Hiroshi Inose from the University of Tokyo some 25 years ago as Internet services were starting to be introduced in Japan. This warning is also relevant today and I still recall it when discussing science and technology policy that is related to issues such as artificial intelligence and big data.

Digital technologies are crucial for knowledge creation and transfer, not only for business and lifestyle but also for education and science. However, Japan’s traditional education and research system must be reformed to meet society’s growing demands as well as the changing global landscape of science. In the past decade, the Japanese government – as well as the country’s science and education communities – have made considerable efforts to make education more flexible and multidisciplinary from elementary to tertiary level. While institutional reform has been happening, the way we evaluate students has not yet developed and spread into classrooms and laboratories.

Science and technology policy in Japan has also been changing from a traditional focus on research and development to innovation. The highest science and technology advisory board to the Japanese prime minister – the Council for Science, Technology and Innovation – recently added innovation to its name, while the government’s research budget has swiftly changed priority from basic to applied research and innovation. Many Japanese Nobel-prize winners – the numbers of whom have been increasing in recent years – are growing concerned with such trends. They claim that Japan’s focus on science is gradually declining, and the motivation and spirit of young students and researchers is being discouraged.

Building bridges

During the earthquake and tsunami that hit north-east Japan in March 2011 resulting in the Fukushima nuclear accident, most of Japan’s scientific societies, government advisers and academics could not take timely and effective action. They lacked an emergency advice system as well as sufficient data collection methods and expertise. Japan’s science and technology community therefore lost trust among the public, politicians and administrators. Before Fukushima, around 80% of respondents to a poll carried out by Japan’s National Institute of Science and Technology Policy trusted science, but that percentage halved following Fukushima. Those sentiments have still not yet recovered after seven years.

Photo of Tateo Arimoto speaking at the World Science Forum in Jordan in November 2017

After Fukushima, the Science Council of Japan completely revised its 2013 code of conduct for scientists and in 2015 Japan’s foreign ministry appointed a chief science and technology adviser to advise over global issues such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. This appointment raised the recognition and importance of science diplomacy with policymakers.

Another issue facing Japan’s science activities is that they are declining relative to other countries. The country needs to prioritize education and basic science in parallel with reforming education and ­science to be more open, flexible, inclusive and to better support promising younger generations.

Around six years ago, the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, along with the universities of Tokyo, Hitotsubashi, Kyoto, Osaka and Kyushu, began a programme to make policy more evidence-based and to train students, researchers and mid-career government officials to have a more open and multidisciplinary mindset. As one of the people behind the project, I believe it has worked to build bridges between science and policymakers. Indeed, our programme has been recognized as being effective and trustworthy, but we still have more progress to make.

In recent years, some universities have tried to add liberal arts curricula such as philosophy, history, social science and communication, to the traditional education courses for graduate students in physics, chemistry, biology and engineering. I have been involved in teaching and debating at several classes. According to many of these students, they appreciate discovering new ways of thinking and taking part in discussions beyond the boundaries of their own discipline, organization, gender, generation or nation. In doing so, they appreciate how their research can make an original contribution to knowledge and society from a diverse perspective.

Two leading international science councils – the International Council for Science and the International Social Science Council – made the historic decision last year to merge and form a single global entity called the International Science Council (ISC). The new body will strengthen international, interdisciplinary collaboration and support scientists to advance science and address global issues for the greater good. The International Union of Pure and Applied Physics subscribes to the following core values of the ISC: excellence and professionalism; inclusivity and diversity; transparency and integrity; innovation and sustainability; scientific education; and capacity development.

The country needs to prioritize education and basic science in parallel with reforming education and science to be more open, flexible, inclusive and to better support promising younger generations

According to my experience discussing sustainable development and science and technology with people in developing countries, Japan is an important role model for those nations’ own futures. They see Japan’s long-term focus on education, science and technology, knowing that the modernization of this non-western country over the last 150 years has been tough but worthwhile in the end.

We now need to build a global platform for sharing knowledge, data, expertise and experiences for sustainable development. It is high time, both in Japan and across the world, to rethink what science is, who a scientist is and why science is so important in the changing world.

  • For more about Japan, check out the latest Physics World Special Report Japan available in our digital magazine or via the Physics World app for any iOS or Android smartphone or tablet.

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