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“Towards the Future, Acting as a Leader in Creating Innovation in an Era of No Maps”

January 1, 2016

HAMAGUCHI Michinari, M.D., Ph.D.
Japan Science and Technology Agency

A new year has just begun and it has been nearly five years since the Great East Japan Earthquake. We will start to implement the new policies under Japan’s fifth Science and Technology Basic Plan over the next five years, while further promoting the future. And JST will be commemorating its 20th anniversary. At the start of this year, which due to the aforementioned events represents a significant turning point, I interviewed Dr. HAMAGUCHI Michinari, the new President of JST, who assumed the office this past autumn. He spoke about close collaboration with universities, promotion of policies and development of personnel in the information age, revitalization after the earthquake and disaster risk reduction, and diversity in the workforce and new value. The passionate way in which he spoke was reminiscent of a clinician, which is his former profession. It appeared as if he had calmly observed the relationships between society and science, considered ways to improve JST’s structure, and carefully prepared for accurate diagnoses and prescriptions. (Interviewer: ASABA Masaharu, science journalist)

—Three months have passed since you became JST President. What are your impressions of JST at this point?

President HAMAGUCHI (hereinafter “HAMAGUCHI”): JST is a much larger organization than I expected it to be and it’s influential both domestically and internationally. Japan’s strengths in 10 to 20 years should largely depend on our roles. We assume an enormously heavy responsibility.

JST is a leader in creating innovation in an era with no maps. We must create innovation that leads to the generation of new social value. Even if there’s no sure method for fulfilling our mission, we’ll definitely be able to draw up strategies for ensuring success in developing personnel and allocating R&D funds.

I want to emphasize the think tank function of the JST Center for Research and Development Strategy (CRDS). CRDS has the ability to identify the current status of universities and researchers, industrial needs, and global trends regarding science and technology (S&T). I think CRDS is the last think tank in Japan to analyze the country’s strengths and weaknesses based on data while surveying the world situations, and then provide suggestions to society. I’m well aware of its expertise and critical roles.

—What fields are you going to focus on?

HAMAGUCHI: When I observe young people, including my son, it seems as if they’re living in a different world. The environment in information and communications has changed dramatically, and this fact has significantly affected the social structure, values, and method of communication among people. The information we obtain now is a mixture of useful and useless, but out of it we just might be able to acquire rare but important information. Anyone is allowed to share opinions via social networking sites, including Twitter.

Japan’s information structure established in the Edo era has changed fundamentally. That said, the country’s S&T needs to be significantly changed as well. If we were able to take in the energy of this new wave of technological development, we could become a more powerful source. However, we have not devised a concrete strategy or policy for this issue.

The relationships between S&T and society have also transformed from those in which the public listen to experts lecturing on knowledge to those where both sides can freely discuss science. This is actually extremely important because the future of Japan will be based on this collaboration. I thus pay special attention to Science Agora, an opportunity to bring science and society together, which is held in Odaiba, Tokyo, in November.

While striving to change the mindset of scientists, we desire dialogues with people from a variety of fields. We therefore plan to hold Science Agora nationwide throughout the year and appeal to professors at universities to help manage and participate in this event.

Several years ago, I hosted a half-day debate between researchers and students at Nagoya University, which was a tribute to the Royal Institute of International Affairs (known as Chatham House). We dealt with Japan’s politics, economy, and education as topics and anonymously published participants’ opinions. Even though we did not plan to derive conclusions from the debate, the event had a huge effect.

Now that universities proactively disseminate opinions throughout society, JST would like to provide support and form new partnerships with them. If the partnerships were established, JST would be known to more researchers. Their image of JST, which is responsible for the allocation of massive R&D funds, might be improved, making JST the mainstay of S&T.

—It seems that this is a new approach to a flexible structure, and is important to intensify the relationships between science and society.

HAMAGUCHI: We want to develop approaches that coincide with the era of information and communications technology (ICT). Based on the approaches, we will be able to devise strategies. Then, JST will address the issues of the earthquake once again. We plan to visit affected areas, including Fukushima, and hold discussions on the subject of “Talking about presence after the earthquake.”

—The earthquake disaster had an extremely negative effect on public trust in scientists.

HAMAGUCHI: I completely agree with you. The Great East Japan Earthquake betrayed public expectations for S&T abilities, including earthquake prediction, and resulted in disappointment and desperation. Scientists could not provide enough support for victims who called for rescue. On the bright side, each university carried out remarkable rescue efforts following the earthquake. Students from Nagoya University collected relief supplies for a few 4-ton trucks and then entered affected areas. They slept in sleeping bags and worked in rotation over one and a half years. The people affected appreciated the efforts, and the students and young doctors gained valuable experience.

—Japan is geographically subject to a variety of natural disasters. There are concerns about earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis, landslides, and sea level rise and sudden change in climate due to global warming. Improving our country’s S&T in the fields of safety and disaster risk reduction should not only help us but also developing countries.

HAMAGUCHI: We should develop new experts who are able to address disaster issues. Researchers are excellent at analyzing past data inside their laboratories, while having a negative reputation for handling what happens in society or a large structure of nature.

Nagoya University founded the Disaster Mitigation Research Center (DMRC) when I was the President. DMRC collects and analyzes old documents of municipalities in Nagoya Prefecture. They began by familiarizing themselves with the areas by collecting data on earthquakes that had occurred in the past and which disasters citizens had suffered, and then they made a hazard map. Training opportunities at the university are offered to local public officers. Depending on the areas, similar earthquakes can cause different types of damage and will require that diverse measures be implemented. I had the opportunity to talk to a female chief editor at the American scientific journal Science regarding DMRC. She was a government agent who took action during the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. She said that “actable scientists” will be needed. These scientists are expected to go to the scene of disasters in order to develop a contingency plan in real time and minimize the loss of human lives using scientific capabilities. We’re now in the era in which this type of scientists and S&T are necessary.

—In an environment in which the government tends to shrink the S&T budget, JST will need to narrow down its areas of research. What do we need to streamline in JST?

HAMAGUCHI: I’m still contemplating this issue, but one thing I know is that JST’s institutional structure has remained unchanged since the rapid growth period of the Japanese economy. The institution had to expand as the government increased the S&T budget. This situation is similar to that of universities in Japan 10 to 20 years ago. I think the structure needs to be modified in line with the current era.

JST bears responsibility for high-risk, high-return R&D. If the government decides to support R&D, we have to encourage researchers to explore this area. Breakthroughs are revolutionary and have major impacts on society. The invention of blue LEDs is just such a breakthrough, and is said to have brought light to 1.5 billion people, which is a Nobel Prize-winning reason. This has an overwhelming impact on society. JST would like to continue to provide support for this type of research.

—You visited the JST liaison office in India at the end of last year, which was established in February 2015. What are your expectations for India?

HAMAGUCHI: Because India has produced a large number of talented scientists, I would like to introduce them to Japan. I have good Indian friends. The people are trained very well and can memorize the products of two-figure multiplications but are not always allowed to use their abilities within the caste system, India’s traditional social system. Fifteen major languages are used there. The depth of diversity in Indian values cannot compare with that of Japan. In modern society, diversity should become a driving force for development.

Japan has lost flexibility in terms of diversity and needs to recover it by communicating with Indians. We must transform our country into one in which women, who are domestically a minority, become more active and express their opinions.

Charles Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”

—In closing, would you please share your favorite mottos and hobbies with us?

HAMAGUCHI: My father used to say to me, “Adversity makes a man wise.” He must have wanted to say that young people should be willing to endure hardship because they will thereby become mature.

My hobby is painting. I enjoy the vitality of flowers as they bloom in all their glory. I’m also fond of cultivating plants. I grow roses and other seasonal flowers when I have time. I feel the energy of life when watching flowers mature and bloom. It’s similar to cultivating students, which I look forward to.

—Speaking to you is much like speaking to a doctor who values life and an educator who cultivates students. Thank you very much.