The priorities for higher education and research in Japan

Michinari Hamaguchi: "The goal of research in Japan is innovation"

Scientific research and technological development in Japan should be guided by the social use of knowledge, innovation and cooperation between scientists, institutions and countries. The recommendation has been given by the president of the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST), Michinari Hamaguchi.

His was the final exhibition of the first day (March 7) of conferences at the second phase of the Intercontinental Academia (ICA), in Nagoya. The theme of his speech was Higher Education and Academic Research From the View Point of Funding.

Hamaguchi said that humanity must face the depletion of natural resources, the food crisis, the global warming, the environmental degradation and the population growth. According to him, these challenges can not be solved separately by institutions, sectors of research or even by a specific country.

To this scenario he adds the changes in life and society resulting from rapid technological development, such as information and communication technologies: "We live in a totally different world than 30 years ago. Jobs are disappearing and more and more people consider that we live in a false industrial revolution, being ours a critical time indeed."

Concerning the Japanese context, Hamaguchi said that there is an additional social component: the aging of the population due to increased longevity and low birth rate.

Science for society

He recalled that in the Declaration on Science and the Use of Scientific Knowledge, drawn up at a world conference organized by Unesco and the International Council for Science (ICSU) in Budapest, in 1999, the role of science was defined based on four objectives:

  • science for knowledge, knowledge for progress;
  • science for peace;
  • science for development;
  • science in society and science for society.



Regarding the contribution of science to society, Hamaguchi highlighted the urgency of efforts in Japan to overcome the consequences of the earthquake followed by a tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011, when more than 18,000 people died: "How can we contribute through scientific and technological development so that the survivors rebuild their lives and regain their joy?".

The tragedy had also a profound impact on the credibility of Japanese scientists. Before the tsunami, almost 80% of the Japanese trusted the scientists, but this percentage dropped to 40% after the tragedy, now reaching 60%.

Japan must prepare for similar events. Most importantly, he said, is to seek solutions to issues as infrastructure, education, urban areas, nourishment and communication networks.

According to Hamaguchi, the JST's actions support the communities affected by the tsunami and the radioactive leak in Fukushima. One of the cited examples has been the development of an equipment to quickly verify if the rice being produced in the region is or not contaminated by radiation.


The speaker stressed that the technological revolution, besides deeply affecting the industry, employability and various aspects of the society's life, also leads to drastic changes in the university and the production of knowledge.

For him, the traditional forms of education will no longer function as a means of transmitting knowledge to new generations, and professors are losing their special role in society and may become ordinary citizens in a network. Therefore, Hamaguchi considers essential that Japan creates a new academic system and a new way of setting up university networks based on cooperative work.

JST programs

Hamaguchi said that the main programs of the JST for research funding are designed to stimulate innovation, including those related to basic research. One of the concerns is to support the intellectual property and train professionals working in the interaction between companies and academia.

According to him, the main program focused on innovation considers three assumptions: an aging population, an intelligent society and sustainability. The initiative has three development guidelines: 1) "backcast approach": to imagine a future society and what needs it will have in 10 to 20 years, and to plan the steps to be taken so that the objectives are achieved; 2) "under the same roof": to put together researchers from industry and from universities to harmonize their differences in performance, such as the time dedicated to a long-term research, for example; 3) a longer period of funding: the JST funds projects for 9 years, something unusual in Japan, where the projects are usually supported for 3 to 5 years.


After the conference, Hamaguchi answered some questions from the audience. Carsten Dose, executive director of the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies (FRIAS) and General Secretary for the ICA, asked about the expectations in relation to changes in Japanese universities for them to become better in terms of innovation, given Hamaguchi's experience as president of the Nagoya University from 2009 to 2015. He said that Japan needs to change the style of doing science, paying greater attention to the needs of society.

In his view, another important aspect to demand changes is the fact that Japan has 2018 undergraduate programs and is facing the problem of reducing the Japanese population. One indicator of this gap is the reduction in competition in entrance exams at universities this year, he said. "The 18 year-old generation is decreasing rapidly. By 2025, Japan will be reduced by 103,000 (10%) in the number of people at that age. Currently, this population represents less than 60% from what it was in the peak period. This means that the system will collapse."

He added that there are 760 universities in Japan and 40% of them have problems. "We expect a kind of disaster in a few years. So we need to figure out how to reform higher education, but at the moment no one knows how to do this."

Martin Grossmann, former director of the IEA-USP and member of the Senior Committee for the ICAwanted to know if there is a crisis of the social sciences and humanities in Japanese universities, since the news have been reporting that the country's institutions will give less attention to them.

Hamaguchi said that the important is to incorporate social scientists from the beginning of projects related to the natural sciences and also to harmonize the styles of both fields: "The social sciences generally work with long periods of the past and Japan needs to think about the future. In addition, natural scientists work in groups, while social science research is often carried out by a single researcher."