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Editorial: Can the ‘Moonshot’ program break from conventions of past initiatives?

  • October 28, 2019
  • , The Japan News , 7:25 p.m.
  • English Press

The government will set ambitious targets, gather knowledge from Japan and abroad, and attempt to develop groundbreaking technology. A system must be solidly developed to prevent the initiative from ending up as empty words.

 

The government has launched its “Moonshot Research and Development Program.”

 

“Moonshot” was originally used to refer to a lunar rocket launch. Based on the achievements of the U.S. Apollo program, which realized manned lunar landings in the 1960s, the word is now often used to refer to schemes considered to be difficult to achieve that could dramatically change society if realized.

 

Japan has started late compared to the United States, where start-ups are emerging one after another, producing groundbreaking products and services in such sectors as information technology. It is a matter of concern that the research capabilities of universities are also declining.

 

Sensing an apparent crisis over the present state of affairs, the government has embarked on an attention-grabbing initiative. It is understandable that the government is planning to provide funds as seed money to stimulate innovation.

 

So far, 25 ideas have been put forward as specific program targets, such as “fully automating the construction of buildings by the year 2040,” and “establishing technology to restore natural environments.” These ideas were summarized at a meeting of experts, including science fiction authors and artists among others.

 

On the basis of these proposals, the government will make final decisions on several specific targets sometime in December or later, and will publicly invite applications from research teams.

 

The most important thing is to set appropriate targets. If the goals are not difficult enough, the research would end up being banal, yielding similar results as those of past government-led projects.

 

On the other hand, if the targets are set too high, the projects would merely be absurd, unachievable dreams unlikely to win cooperation from universities and private companies, no matter how fascinating the projects may sound.

 

The government also must steer all of the programs. Talented individuals who are able to plot paths toward the goals must be appointed, and research projects that have no prospects of being realized must be scrapped.

 

The top-down research conducted by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency of the U.S. Defense Department has often been used as a model. The agency, which has made such achievements as the internet and the global positioning system, has an annual budget of around ¥370 billion.

 

The budgets for Japan’s latest program will total only ¥100 billion or so over five years. As long as the program is named “moonshot,” the government should narrow the targets and concentrate the allocation of the limited budget.

 

Innovation entails failure, but the initiative needs to be implemented in such a way that it does not end up being a spectacular waste of money.

 

Even if there are targets that cannot be realized, new technologies may emerge as a by-product during the development process. An approach of aiming to achieve results wherever possible is needed.

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