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Editorial: Chart course for science, technology with an eye on the changing times

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

There have been remarkable developments in science, such as artificial intelligence and genome editing. Policies must be worked out for science and technology, based on a hard look at what a new era will be like.


The government has drafted a policy for the 6th Science and Technology Basic Plan, which will be implemented from fiscal 2021. The point of the plan is that its targeted areas include not only natural science but also the humanities and social science.


With the advent of new technologies, various problems have emerged in recent years that cannot be solved through natural science alone. For instance, if a fully automated car causes a traffic accident, it will be difficult to judge who is to blame: the manufacturer that made the car or the developer of the related AI for the car.


It has become technically possible to edit the genome of a human being’s fertilized eggs, but this development could lead to the birth of “designer babies” who have the abilities and appearance desired by their parents.


Inquiries from a legal and ethical standpoint are indispensable to cope with such problems. Including the field of humanities in the basic plan can be considered to meet the needs of the times.


The creation of technological innovation will also be a key target in the basic plan. It is aimed not only at the promotion of learning, which has been the conventional approach, but also at linking research results with new goods and services, thereby bringing about economic value.


The basic plan has been drawn up every five years and constituted the basic outline of the country’s science and technology policies. In the first phase, which started in fiscal 1996, a target amount for science- and technology-related funding was established for the first time. There seems little doubt that the plans devised from this point on have had a certain role in securing funds for scientific fields.


But there were also many plans that prompted controversy. In the second phase, the plan set a target of “producing 30 Nobel Prize winners in 50 years.” But this came under fire from all quarters, with people saying that the winning of the prize is entirely the results of research, and the government setting such a target for research was putting the cart before the horse.


From the second phase onward, such themes as communication of information, super computers and space development were taken up repeatedly. Yet it is hard to say that results were achieved that had a significant impact on society.


At present, the number of academic articles produced by Japanese universities and research institutes has declined, while the quality of research also compares poorly with that in Europe, North America and China. Young researchers have been unable to come up with a future vision, and there is a pervasive feeling of hopelessness. If a plan is drawn up with the conventional way of thinking, won’t it fall into a rut?


A look at the world shows that international joint research and the fusion of different fields are advancing at universities. In the sixth plan, research strategies should be formulated that could lead to the resolution of various challenges faced by our society, while also utilizing the developmental power of start-up companies by going beyond the framework of disciplines such as the humanities and sciences.


(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Nov. 25, 2019)

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