A Japanese perspective on the SDGs
April 4, 2019
Yasuda Auditorium, Hongo Campus, The University of Tokyo
Diversity of ideas, researchers, collaborators, backgrounds and disciplines can come together to push science into new and exciting directions. Japanese examples of diversity were on display at Nature’s 150th anniversary symposium in Tokyo.
When it comes to tackling the world’s most pressing problems, diversity could hold the key. At an event to celebrate Nature’s 150th anniversary, held in April at the University of Tokyo, Dr Magdalena Skipper, Editor in Chief of Nature, and other distinguished guests, considered Japan’s contribution to global research goals. Dr Skipper said cross-disciplinary encounters and consequent integration of different fields creates fertile ground for new ideas and solutions.
Dr Skipper presented data showing that diverse collaborations, in terms of gender, ethnicity, age, scientific background and other factors tend to lead to more impactful outcomes. She lamented Japan’s low ratio of female scientists as an example of where Japanese research is missing the opportunity presented by diversity. On the other hand, she noted that the number of international research collaborations in Japan is on the increase.
Dr Skipper said the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by the United Nations in 2015 with the aim of building a more peaceful and democratic world, provide a driver for interdisciplinary collaboration across natural and social sciences resulting in a more diverse approach to research. Even the instigators for SDGs research are diversifying in their sources. For example, she said, the views of patients, farmers and society at large are being incorporated into pharmacological, meteorological and environmental research, respectively, a sign of growing connection between scientific research and society.
President Makoto Gonokami of the University of Tokyo, the co-organizer of the symposium, mentioned in his opening address that for diverse individuals across the whole university to act together highly convincing goals with broad appeal were needed, and that is why the university has adopted the SDGs as their guide. Clarifying and sharing common goals throughout the university make it easier for cooperation and collaboration to emerge across disciplinary borders from the social sciences to natural sciences to humanities, further raising the standard of academic research at the university.
Another speaker, Professor Masashi Yanagisawa, Director of International Institute for Integrative Sleep Medicine (WPI-IIIS) at University of Tsukuba explained how diversity and cross-disciplinary collaboration led to the creation of a whole new field of research, with major implications for health, the fifth SDG. As the discoverer of endothelin, a peptide which regulates vascular constriction and also orexin, a neuropeptide that regulates sleep and wakefulness, Yanagisawa works to elucidate the functions of sleep and its regulatory mechanisms, which remain a mystery. His institute incorporates whichever methodologies are necessary to make headway.
Before being appointed to his current position, he spent more than 20 years as a principal investigator at the University of Texas (US) and is familiar with the research conditions in both Japan and the US. Using the US model of an open and hierarchy-free lab environment, he frequently holds seminars and study sessions open to all members of the IIIS. When external researchers visit the institute, he persuades them to stay for a whole day so that they get a chance to talk to the principal researchers of all the laboratories. With a new PhD programme in Humanics, he also emphasizes the importance of assigning mentors from two different fields for each student to give students the opportunity to learn diverse perspectives. The IIIS, which has been admitted to the prestigious World Premier International Research Centers Initiative (WPI) run by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), comprises about 30% international researchers, which is unusually high in Japan.
One of the most important things in research, Yanagisawa said, is “to be given the freedom to pursue what the researcher finds most interesting”. It was a sentiment echoed by Professor Yoshinori Ohsumi, Specially-appointed professor at the Institute of Innovative Research, the Tokyo Institute of Technology, and winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discoveries of the mechanisms for autophagy.
“My hope is that science will become a part of culture in Japan,” Ohsumi declared. “Why is that? Everyone is always demanding efficiency in scientific research in Japan today. However, it takes many years until research, especially when it is pioneering a totally new field, will bear fruit. I hope society will recognise science as a category of culture, which would allow researchers time to settle into their research, and not hastily ask for results.”
He noted that even for a discovery that was ultimately awarded a Nobel Prize, it took more than twenty years from discovery of autophagy until the number of related papers started to increase exponentially. As he uncovered the mechanisms of autophagy, it gradually became clear that it could be applied to other fields such as cancer therapy and it started to attract more attention. But it all started from pure curiosity, he said, and he continued to study the mechanisms of autophagy just because his curiosity was not yet satisfied. He said today, Japanese scientists tend to take up hot research themes to make it easier to receive public research grants. Professor Ohsumi, however, feels so passionate about diverse, long-term research and a broad basic research in Japan that he founded the Ohsumi Frontier Science Foundation in 2017 with his own funding.
Poster children for SDGs
As part of the symposium, a poster session was held under the theme “Your Vision: Foreseeing the impact of your research on society” to feature fresh ideas of early career researchers toward achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Two award winners were selected as the Nature Award and SDGs Award respectively by the Nature editorial team and faculty members of The University of Tokyo.
Interview with the winners
Nature Award Winner
Building international collaborative education, research and practical implementation to achieve SDG 6
— to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
Shinobu Kazama Ph.D.
Project Assistant Professor
Department of Urban Engineering
Graduate School of Engineering, The University of Tokyo
I study water supply systems as a member of a university laboratory that carries out projects to help improve water supply systems in developing countries of Asia. When I visited the local water utilities as part of the project, I realized that just importing technologies from developed countries won’t work. The situation will never change unless the local people themselves understand the fundamental issues of why sanitary water is necessary and how to manage it, and then, based on that understanding, decide themselves how to incorporate imported technologies into their own society.
At our laboratory, we accept international students from water and wastewater utilities in the developing countries of Asia. They are learning engineering and technological knowledge on water and hygiene and working on case studies related to problems their home country is experiencing. They are expected to eventually return to their country and become leaders of the utilities. I would like to develop and spread safe water supply systems by sharing case studies with my peers from Asia and by promoting cooperation among industry, academia and government. That’s the kind of international cooperation I proposed with this poster.
SDGs Award Winner
Energy harvesting — Autonomous wireless sensors for an age of IOT, contributing to SDG 7
— to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
Daisuke Yamane Ph.D.
Tokyo Institute of Technology, IIR, FIRST
Energy harvesting is the process of generating electricity by utilizing sources of energy present in our surroundings. The best known examples are solar power and wind power generation, but my idea is to utilize the small vibrations constantly generated in our environment, like the vibration produced when people walk or when automobiles run. The amount of energy that can be derived from these small vibrations, however, is also small and therefore will be converted to electricity using tiny generators. What is the best application for this small amount of energy? I came up with the idea of using it to power wireless sensors for monitoring the environment.
In the coming age of IoT, countless small wireless sensors will be monitoring all sorts of things. For instance, sensors will be deployed to monitor the integrity of structures like bridges, roads, and buildings. These sensors will be deployed in large numbers and if we could use small generators for wireless sensors, we can make them compact, low cost and free of power connection or battery replacement. Moreover, the generators would work even at night or in dark places and semipermanently. We are currently working toward practical applications using micro-electronic machine systems (MEMS).
I have always used the SDGs as my guiding principle, when considering and reviewing the details of my research. I am so happy and honored to receive this award.
Opening address, Keynote speakers & Panelists
President of The University of Tokyo
Specially-appointed professor, Tokyo Institute of Technology
Director, International Institute for Integrative Sleep Medicine (WPI-IIIS), University of Tsukuba
Professor, Department of Chemistry and Biotechnology, School of Engineering, The University of Tokyo
Deputy Director, RIKEN Center for Emergent Matter Science
Special Advisor to the President / Professor, the Institute for Future Initiatives, The University of Tokyo
Senior Vice-Rector, United Nations University, Japan
Assistant Secretary-General, United Nations
Editor in Chief, Nature
Executive Vice President / Professor, Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology, The University of Tokyo