- SHINOMIYA Nariyoshi (Microbiology/Immunology, Molecular Oncology, Undersea / Hyperbaric Medicine, Biosecurity)
President, National Defense Medical College
After the occurrence of the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, experts in the field of science and technology and policymakers involved in the formulation of relevant policies faced considerable criticism and questions regarding their roles in society. In particular, concerning the state of emergency caused by the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, they could not be said to have provided the public with the necessary information promptly. This must have raised questions regarding the significance and the reason d'etre of experts and about how information should be disseminated to the public. However, in response to the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020, did the "experts" of this problem responded and acted appropriately this time? What would have been their responses that could have satisfied society, and were these provided in a visible manner? The lack of information provided to society and society's dissatisfaction with the information that was issued by experts, together with the resulting failure of public health measures can direct the public attitude towards the notion of experts as unnecessary.
Then, what significance do experts on science and technology have? And based on what principles should they take actions as experts? The simplest answer to this question is the dignity as an expert - that is, experts' self-pride and self-belief. Experts have the confidence built on their rigid academic basis, the commitment to serve society using their expertise, and the attitude of never giving up to put all efforts in the devoted pursuit. In a sense, there exists a foundation for their professional roles which assume responsibility that can be grave and imminent. Without such, they would not call themselves experts.
However, members of society do not necessarily share such a view. To them, experts may appear to recommend different things and give varying opinions. Then, it is hard for them to rely on experts as the ones who navigate them in a good direction. Indeed, on news and information sites on the Internet, there is a mixture of varying information by experts, some of which make completely opposite claims. This is not an acceptable situation for lay people, and they become confused about what to trust. However, this is nothing to be surprised about as experts are individuals who conduct their own research whilst belonging to relevant academic communities – they are a collection of diverse people with differing opinions and ideas. Unless it is as self-evident as "1+1=2," to which no one would claim otherwise, individual experts have their own ideas, logics and thus, conclusions. Hence, there is no one conclusion to which all experts would agree. If there is anything that is common to all experts, that would be the critical standpoint and the attitude to seek truth by such a conduct.
For example, even if there is a promising candidate for an effective therapeutic drug, experts cannot conclude that it is clinically effective at the stage of basic R&D. Until the drug is clinically tested, its effectiveness is verified, and its efficacy has a clear evidence, it remains 'unknown in terms of therapeutic efficacy' and 'uncertain about its usage as a clinical treatment. 'Here lies the reason why experts' opinions are not easy for the public to understand. If experts make optimistic comments about the candidate drug, the public may think that it will become an effective drug. If, on the other hand, experts speak objectively based on facts alone, audience may interpret it as a low expectation towards the drug. Experts are those who seek the only truth, and do not make speculations unless there is a clear evidence to support it. This, in turn, results in ambiguity associated with experts' information and causes a wide variety of interpretations made by the audience.