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Universities must

step up to

cater for ‘Society 5.0’

By Silvia Richter

University World News

13 July 2018 Issue No:514

Making Japan ‘the most innovation-friendly country in the world’ is one of the Japanese government’s key goals, according to Yuko Harayama, former executive member of the Japanese Council for Science, Technology and Innovation, who discussed Japan’s Comprehensive Strategy on Science, Technology and Innovation at a meeting of German and Japanese researchers at Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany, on 5 July.

Harayama was one of 50 representatives and researchers from almost a dozen Japanese universities attending the event dubbed Science Days 2018 to discuss potential partnerships in research, teaching and transfer with German counterparts.
She explained that Japan has published a Science and Technology Basic Plan every five years since 1995, when the Japanese government introduced the Science and Technology Basic Law. The plans centre on the national strategy on science, technology and innovation, for which the cabinet annually sets the priorities.
The country is currently half way through the Fifth Science and Technology Basic Plan (2016-20), which seeks to develop a “super smart society” – or ‘Society 5.0’, a concept introduced by the Japanese government and its Council for Science, Technology and Innovation, under which various 21st century challenges are addressed: the ageing population, climate change, food security, the limited availability of natural resources and the fulfilment of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Instead of the technology-driven approaches pursued so far, Japan’s present strategy incorporates a human-centred approach. The goal is an inclusive society in which everyone shares the same opportunities and that guarantees economic growth and well-being for all – “regardless of age, gender, location, language or other limitations”.
The fundamental technologies of the concept are artificial intelligence, robotics and the Internet of Things. Above all, the construction and use of databases are to be boosted in order to provide people with important new services. Harayama mentioned intelligent transport systems, community care and healthcare systems, food production and distribution, and disaster prevention as examples of new research and development investment priority targets.
For example, mobility is key to ensuring that people – especially older citizens – can live actively. However, more security and sustainability are also important in the transport system, so developing driverless cars is just as crucial as developing electric ones.
New business models are to be worked out for the traditional branches of industry. For example, the agricultural sector is to be boosted by using big data and by the development of new technologies.
A geographical database into which geospatial, satellite and weather data is fed will help prevent disasters and forecast events such as earthquakes, floods and tsunamis in time to take action, making society more resilient. The compilation of a ‘cybersecurity database’ is also at the top of the government’s agenda.
Implications for universities
There are two aspects of the 2017 science, technology and innovation strategy that are going to have particular implications for the work of the universities, Harayama told University World News.
One of them is to support mechanisms for promoting open innovation. As far as universities are concerned, this means that they are requested to open their doors – in several respects. For one thing, calling for more openness implies seeking a new way of doing science: open science.
Harayama perceives this as a great opportunity, since scientists will be able to capture data sets that they can use for their own activities, thus enlarging their expertise or developing new fields of research. “But there are also huge resistances on the part of the scientists themselves,” Harayama said, noting that they feared data theft and losing competitiveness.
Second, meeting the requirements of the 2017 science, technology and innovation strategy would mean having to strengthen international collaboration in research and teaching and in supporting junior scientists – what Harayama referred to as “the missing path” in the real life of her home country’s institutions, noting that most Japanese researchers were working within the Japanese context.
This is also reflected in the latest QS World University Rankings, which demonstrates that Japanese universities are currently becoming less international.
Here too, she sees the main problem as the human factor. “If you are lucky, you will have a free, open-minded supervisor who encourages you to go outside and have some collaboration with others. But if you have a narrow-minded, conservative supervisor, you are missing opportunities,” Harayama explained.
Most young scientists working as postdocs stayed at the same lab for several years, which ran counter to the strategy’s calling for diversity and career mobility. The government was therefore trying to provide incentives for them to go out to other institutions.
Institutions should also pursue openness in the composition of the student body. With society ageing, more and more people are going back to university later in life. “We ought to be able to welcome different types of students,” Harayama maintained, also with a view to universities opening up more to attract international students.
Diversification of funding sources
The second area that has an immediate impact on the work of universities in Japan is the diversification of funding sources.
Up to 2004, Japan’s universities were under the control of the ministry of education. Then, Harayama explained, they became independent entities that by and large enjoyed the same financial support they had previously had, based on block funding.
But a 1% annual budget cut was decided upon with this conversion, which has forced institutions to look for partnerships with business in the long term. Japanese universities have been allowed to hold contracts with the business sector since the late 1990s. The new science, technology and innovation strategy explicitly calls for more support for such collaborative ventures.
“The universities are under pressure from various sides: a growing expectation from society that they should be more useful and do more applied research, the pressure from the students for high quality education, and block funding that falls short of what is needed to cover research activities,” Harayama said. “Even the biggest universities have to find their money outside.”
She pointed out that the multiple objectives that institutions had to address, such as research, training ‘new blood’ and providing society with services such as technology transfer, were difficult to align with industry’s goal of maximising profit. Institutions were required to work more efficiently but simultaneously perform their role in society.
Universities had to gain more negotiating power vis-à-vis business people to convince them that independent training was important. “The main goal is always that of educating and training people, and sometimes we are losing sight of this,” Harayama said.