Experts believe that seeds of innovation are rooted in diversity

What kind of future society does Japan seek after overcoming a wide range of issues and constraints such as energy, as well as the low birthrate and aging population? Four people from industry, government and academic circles discussed the front line of research and development where relevant parties are striving to solve social issues.

Participants were Eriko Komiya, director of the Achievement Dissemination and Collaboration Promotion Office of the Policy Planning and Coordination Division at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry; Yumiko Kajiwara, corporate executive officer VP, deputy CTO and vice head of Global Human Resources and head of Diversity Promotion Office at Fujitsu Ltd.; Narie Sasaki, associate professor at Nagoya University’s Graduate School of Science; and Masayo Tokuhiro, deputy director of the Industry-University Collaboration Office at METI.

Kajiwara and Sasaki serve as members of METI’s R&D and Innovation Subcommittee of the Committee on Industrial Science and Technology Policy and Environment under the Industrial Structure Council.

Komiya: At METI, we have begun discussing industrial technology policy for the new era, and you are active committee members in that discussion.

How do you view Japan’s strengths and where it stands now globally at a time when countries, led by the United States and China, are engaging in fierce competition to be innovative?

Kajiwara: I feel that common values and ethics in Japan have been re-evaluated by various industries. Meticulous service represented by the spirit of omotenashi (traditional Japanese hospitality) and an orientation toward development that tries to grasp customer needs are just some examples. Building on such Japanese strengths, companies are working to create new values.

I get the impression that the national industrial technology policy has provided across-the-board support. It routinely spans various fields and covers a wide variety of spheres from seed research to societal implementation. I think it’s time to promote in-depth discussion on which direction Japan is aiming for.

Sasaki: As I’m engaged in biological science, a field of basic research, I sometimes feel out of place. This is because discussions surrounding innovation tend to focus on so-called exit strategies. Professors who have received Nobel prizes uniformly refer to the importance of basic research. Like them, I feel a sense of impending crisis regarding the current situation in which expenditure on basic research is sluggish, and there is a shortage of positions for researchers.

However, compared to other countries, including the U.S. and China, where national government initiatives see a concentration of policy resources devoted to high-tech industries and competitive fields, there remains space in Japan for basic research that is not constrained by the end-product. It’s very difficult to restore environments for basic research once their foundation is lost. I think Japan should turn its unique environment into a strength.

Komiya: Right. These days we often hear discussions surrounding the lack of understanding of basic research, in which it is difficult to see how it works, and its benefits.

Sasaki: The works of Osamu Shimomura, winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in chemistry for research into green fluorescent protein developed from jellyfish (Aequorea victoria), and Yoshinori Ohsumi, recipient of the 2016 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine on autophagy (the process of removing unnecessary proteins within a cell), were considered interesting from a biological phenomenon viewpoint. But people were not sure of the studies’ real value until it was discovered how such research could be applied.

Diversity, inclusion as drivers

Kajiwara: I believe the driving force behind innovation is diversity and inclusion.

Sasaki: Nagoya University has an open and vigorous atmosphere to proactively promote women and young researchers, thus I feel we are blessed with an environment to take on challenges.

The Division of Biological Science to which I belong has succeeded in increasing the ratio of its female faculty by around 30 percent over the past 10 years. Launched in 2013, the Institute of Transformative Bio-Molecules, where I’m engaged in research, was previously selected as a World Premier International Research Center Initiative by the education ministry. The average age of the center’s original, core members was roughly 40 years.

Future prediction keys

Kajiwara: I’m sure collaboration among different fields and integration with foreign elements are keys for innovation. This can also apply to organizational management and operations, let alone the frontlines of cutting-edge research and development.

The reason I place emphasis on diversity, especially inclusion, is a belief that the seeds of innovation occur in an environment where people respect each other, recognizing any differences and developing empathy, rather than people with different backgrounds and values just getting together. Whether it is possible to foster such an environment is a common task for the industrial and academic communities.

Tokuhiro: The promotion of diversity in research and development in Japan is an essential issue to address, given the low ratio of female researchers compared to other countries. I personally think we might as well come up with policies to ensure a certain ratio of female participation in some national research and development projects.

From the perspective of technology and innovation, there are many cases where the country’s systems, including strict quotas, and the applications and operations of such systems at universities do not adequately address technological progress and the nurturing of new personnel. So, I feel it’s increasingly essential for deregulation and to facilitate environments reflecting actual situations.

Sasaki: Nagoya University has promoted efforts to give students from different fields opportunities to consider joint research, allowing them to gain funding for successful proposals. The Principal Investigator, who supervises laboratories, judges the presentations. Judging criteria include whether the proposal crosses over different study areas, and addresses a challenging topic that could potentially subvert the thinking around entrenched ideas.

Clues to success

Komiya: The quality and number of joint industry and academic collaborations has improved. Recently, the merging of efforts between industry and academia, which is a result of such deepening collaborations, has seen companies setting up their research institutes at universities.

What successful instances of company-university merger efforts have in common is that the aims of their research and development are carefully discussed from the outset, when parties are cultivating their vision.

Kajiwara: Speaking about how companies operate, workers actively exercise their abilities if they feel aligned with clear visions and goals. At the same time, such a situation creates a positive cycle, attracting personnel to that company who identify with the organizational vision.

Paradigm shift for universities

Tokuhiro: I also feel that paradigm shift is necessary for universities. Frankly speaking, I think it is okay to have this bold idea that companies establish their own universities. In fact, Dyson Ltd. of the U.K. established The Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology and SoftBank did something similar.

Moreover, the education ministry is considering introducing a system to allow private universities to “hand over” their departments. Using such a system would possibly make it easier for companies to establish their own universities.

Sasaki: It is a major task of how society can best utilize researchers who have advanced to studying at the doctorate level and are dedicated to their research, as well as spawning innovation — particularly in the area of biological science.

Recently, two young researchers from our laboratory were selected to participate in innovation creation programs by the Japan Science and Technology Agency. However, they then faced the situation of not being able to receive program support, as they had not held official university posts, despite being excellent researchers. I heard that such instances do not occur in other engineering fields.

Kajiwara: I understand; circumstances vary according to each department and division. I guess the government needs to review any relevant systems flexibly.

Komiya: I know that affinity is not so great between research and development, which moves faster, and the government’s framework. Government output toward policy goals is expected to proceed in a linear manner. Furthermore, government budgets are, in principle, created once a year.

We’d like to promote discussions on such topics, including issues that came up during the subcommittee discussion.