Home > Interview with the President > “JST 20th Anniversary Addressing New Challenges to Create Future Value”

“JST 20th Anniversary
Addressing New Challenges to Create Future Value ”

Oct 2016

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

Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST) commemorated its 20th anniversary this October. Japan Science and Technology Corporation (the name at that time) was founded as JST in October 1996 through the merging of Japan Information Center of Science and Technology (JICST) and Research Development Corporation of Japan (JRDC).

These 20 years have been turbulent both domestically and abroad. Since Japan’s first Science and Technology Basic Plan began running at the time of JST’s foundation, we’ve assumed a role as the core institution to implement the country’s science and technology policies in accordance with the plan. We’ve brought science and technology achievements and society together by promoting innovation, using diplomacy in science and technology, and advancing reconstruction after the Great East Japan Earthquake. We’ve also pursued unique approaches to making our country a place where people can feel more hopeful and training future scientists.

We provided R&D funds dedicated to generating induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) as well as to developing and commercializing blue light-emitting diodes (LEDs) for a long time, work that was awarded two Nobel Prizes. Last year we ranked third in the Reuter ranking “Top 25 Global Innovators – Government.”

What contributions do we need to make now in order to continue promoting the global trend of innovation, utilizing science and technology for society, and enriching people’s lives? President HAMAGUCHI will share his thoughts on these topics.

Making Future Society Hopeful Using Science Desired by Society

—JST is celebrating its 20th anniversary. First of all, would you tell us about the courses of action we need to take and the roles we need to assume in the future?

President HAMAGUCHI (hereinafter “HAMAGUCHI”): In short, JST’s mission is to contribute to society through science and technology devoted to opening up opportunities in innovation. In concrete terms, it is to create new value and thereby generate new jobs, provide income to enrich people’s lives and make society more hopeful about the future. It is to accomplish “sustainable development goals (SDGs),” which is also an action plan of the United Nations. Japan has achieved a sustainable society using science and technology despite a lack of resources, but will now have to create new value again in order to meet the evolving needs of a turbulent society.

The quality of innovation has been changing. Even if a prominent researcher was to make a new discovery and develop technology, innovation cannot be achieved. The reason is somewhat difficult to explain, but a process to prove itself as a value or as a product desired by society is necessary to achieve innovation.

For instance, Dr. Isamu AKASAKI, who is a Nobel Laureate in physics, only came to realize society’s needs when he began working at the research laboratory of an electrical appliance manufacturer. He returned to a university to intensify his research and made a practical application of blue LEDs using gallium nitride, which proved to be quite a struggle, eventually bringing light to 1.5 billion people around the world who lived in environments where electricity was less obtainable. He went through the process of acquainting himself with social needs and then using that knowledge for his everyday research. In JST’s current approach, a practical application follows scientists’ discoveries, but now society pays close attention to our skill in managing a support system in which basic research, applied research and practical application are carried out simultaneously.

Another critical issue is that we need to put an end to the rapid decline in Japan’s abilities to carry out research, and independently explore methods with which we recover it. The number of our country’s articles cited in 27 research areas has sharply decreased over the past 10 years relative to other countries. JST has strived to resolve the situation by developing new methods, including funding approaches.

Unlike Japan, Germany has maintained its third position in the world’s competitiveness ranking in science. I assume this is attributable to the fact that they carry out extensive international collaborative research. We’ve been analyzing the methods of the country’s Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft (FhG) and Belgium’s Interuniversity Microelectronics Centre (IMEC) to learn something useful for us. What we’ve learned so far is that we’ll need to create new funding approaches and continue bringing academia and the industrial sector together as an intermediary in order to achieve innovation.

Developing a Mechanism to Create New Value

—How would you achieve the Hamaguchi Plan, in which JST envisions its future?

HAMAGUCHI: I have incorporated JST’s new goals into the Hamaguchi Plan: “establishment of a network-based research institution,” which aspires to accomplish original results, and “contribution to regional revitalization,” which establishes regional sites. The former strives to establish a network of top-level researchers for whom JST has provided research funds and develop a mechanism to create new value, as well as stem the decline of Japan’s research abilities. The latter aims to uncover hidden abilities held by regional cultures and human resources, and establish sites where we develop those abilities into new social value, just as FhG and IMEC do. We’ve already approached the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) and the Ministry of Finance (MOF) in order to encourage them to add subsidies for these goals to the budget for the 2017 fiscal year.

—As a developed country, Japan faces unprecedented challenges, including those of an aging population and declining birthrate as well as environment and energy. How will JST share its achievements with the world through its activities?

HAMAGUCHI: We’re required to address many challenges that are complicated and involve a variety of fields as if we were expected to change society with innovation. Science and technology itself has become main topics of diplomacy. We will strengthen the ability to internationally disseminate our achievements through all of the JST’s programs.

Explaining the Limitations and Possibilities of Science in an Organized Way

—Which roles is JST expected to assume in order to maintain the trust of society and be able to give people dreams and hopes in 20 to 30 years?

HAMAGUCHI: What we must always be aware of is that JST’s activities are supported by taxpayer money. JST needs to be an organization that the public trusts and has high hope for. To this end, we have to maintain transparency, fairness and accountability. We always need to be aware of the method of informed consent used in clinical practice (sufficient information and consent), and inform people of not only the hopes and dreams but also the limitations of today’s science and technology and what we can and cannot do with science in an organized way when talking about the future of this field. We now live in an era in which health professionals accurately explain symptoms and patients are asked to choose a therapy. Likewise, in the field of science and technology, we won’t be able to achieve innovation with new expertise and technology alone. We’ll be able to reach it only when society supports new expertise and technology and realizes their value.

—Plenty of technical terms are inevitable when it comes to explaining science and technology. It is difficult to provide people with information about the subject using words they understand and further acquaint them with it. Which aspects should we pay attention to while explaining?

HAMAGUCHI: Due to progress in information and communications technology, detailed information has become easily accessible to anyone—and not only experts. Some patients are more knowledgeable about therapy and diagnosis of diseases than beginning doctors. Scientists need to be able to identify the doubts, questions and ideas expressed by people they’re talking to.

Consent cannot be obtained without something in addition to just logic. The job of scientists is to carry out a thorough experiment and obtain accurate data consistently. But they also need to make an effort to understand how people feel and provide them with clear information, so that these people understand what the scientist is trying to achieve. In the process of acquiring this ability, they will be able to identify motivation to live life, its value and pleasure. This process is the real meaning of life. I would very much like for those who have chosen the occupation of researcher to understand this value.

While Moved by the Level of Support during Reconstruction after Great East Japan Earthquake, Continuing to Question Methods with Which We Provide People with Support and Hope

—How can we continue making contributions to these activities?

HAMAGUCHI: We need to develop our ability as a navigator. Innovation won’t be achieved unless the wisdom of a variety of fields is combined. We should create opportunities in which people who have different values and languages assemble, promote the arrangement and management of these opportunities, and create a society in which everyone tries to help each other. JST’s inherent job is becoming a key organization in this process, which is something we take pride in.

—Finally, one year has passed since you assumed the position of JST President. During this period, what has left a strong impression on you?

HAMAGUCHI: What has moved me the most is JST’s support during reconstruction after the Great East Japan Earthquake. I realized that we could provide support for reconstruction, find new business enterprises and generate employment in these regions using scientific and technological capabilities. I was pleased to know that there are many JST staff members who worked tirelessly.

Addressing challenges in science and technology is equal to contributing to sustainable development in society, but we need to begin by taking care of each person. It’s always important to question methods with which we provide people with support and hope as a professional group in this field.

—Thank you so much for explaining these difficult topics so clearly.