In Japan, where natural resources are scarce, excellent human resources and science, technology and innovation (STI) capabilities are the driving forces for societal development and economic growth. COVID-19 has changed the landscape of our society, posing many challenges to humankind, and making clear the importance of human resources and STI capabilities. Excellent human resources are indispensable for ensuring the resilience of our society to deal with rapid societal changes, as typified by the responses to COVID-19 and digital transformation (DX), and for maintaining and increasing STI capabilities.
Science, technology and innovation capabilities
Exceptional STI capabilities bring about societal development and sustainable economic growth not only in Japan, but also around the world through innovation for the realisation of new lifestyles and the creation of new values. Education and STI are the twin pillars of the policies of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). We will discharge the great responsibility we have for the future of Japan and the world by securing necessary and sufficient human and financial resources and pursuing the best systems for education and STI.
MEXT has responsibility for the government’s broad STI policy, from basic research at universities to large research projects such as space exploration and nuclear energy development. We promote this policy through a combination of bottom-up research based on the original thinking of researchers and top-down research. In order to strengthen basic research, the support for young researchers is of particular importance. MEXT offers fellowships and related measures, including its establishment of the “Fusion Oriented REsearch for disruptive Science and Technology (FOREST)” program, which provides secure research environments so that young researchers, in particular, can concentrate on their research, with research funding extended for up to 10 years. FOREST enables researchers to dedicate themselves to original and challenging research beyond the existing frameworks, without falling into the “trap” of short-term performance-based research by providing them with stable positions when they are young and full of inspiration.
The international networks of researchers
Furthermore, I would like to note the necessity for Japan to play an important role in the international networks of researchers. MEXT is promoting the “World Premier International Research Center Initiative (WPI)”, which aims at creating basic research centres that serve as “international brain circulation hubs” where excellent researchers from all over the world gather at Japanese universities and research institutes. This is a unique initiative that builds interdisciplinary research centres in various places in Japan with government funding for 10 years. The centres need to meet stringent requirements such as appointing 10 world-class principal investigators (PIs) and keeping the ratio of researchers from abroad at no less than 30%. This initiative contributes to the structural reform of Japanese universities by spreading good practices to institutions outside the centres. In addition, we invite more than 500 excellent young overseas researchers to Japanese universities and research institutes every year by providing research fellowships, which brings diversity to the research environment in Japan and strengthens the ties with international research networks.
Education and COVID-19
Naturally, education is the foundation of a nation because it develops the crucial next-generation human resources in all areas and not just STI. Particularly under the trying circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, the wisdom of the nation must be brought together and dedicated efforts must be made to ensure that children and adults “do not stop learning”. For example, in primary and secondary education, we are working on developing standards for the new era of school education, including the promotion of the “GIGA School Program”, which will dramatically improve the quality of education by providing one online educational computer terminal for each student in response to DX. In regards to higher education, we are also working on pursuing the best form of university education in the new normal, including a hybrid type of education that combines the advantages of both face-to-face and remote learning, and more productive research activities using automated/remote-controlled facilities and equipment.
STI and the resolution of global issues
Finally, I would like to note the contribution of STI to the resolution of global issues. In June and November 2020, thanks to the devoted efforts of the people concerned, the supercomputer “Fugaku”, which was newly developed by Japan, consecutively dominated the world’s highest supercomputing ranking in four categories. In April, since COVID-19 was already spreading throughout the world, the Japanese
government immediately decided to provide the computing capability of Fugaku, which was still under construction at the time, for research on simulations of airborne droplets and ventilation in classrooms and hospitals, and on the search for candidate therapeutic drugs. We are heartened that Fugaku has contributed to the protection of our lives. Furthermore, Fugaku has participated in an international consortium (COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium) established by the United States in March to concentrate the computing resources of supercomputers and provide them for COVID-19 research through the cooperation of industry, government and academia. We hope to make various cross-border contributions through the consortium.
While STI activities have been expanded across national borders, in recent years STI policies have been repositioned as the core of growth strategies in various countries around the world, as such policies are required for appropriately dealing with international cooperation and competition. We at MEXT are committed to building the foundation for the future of Japan and the world by promoting and driving forward STI, while facilitating the philosophy of open science that ensures the dissemination of research results and international cooperation for joint research and exchanges of researchers with overseas universities and institutions.