Written by Clemens Weichert with António Vale.
In a fragmented and shifting geopolitical landscape, it is important to have partners you can trust, in research as well as in politics. At the sixth joint conference of the European Parliament’s Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA) and the Kyoto-based Science and Technology in Society forum (STS forum) in Brussels, policy leaders and researchers from Europe and Japan underlined that they intend not only to continue, but to deepen cooperation in the research field. The discussion between senior officials and scientists focused on international research cooperation, with a special emphasis on the planned Horizon Europe association agreement with Japan, which would make the East Asian country one of the first associates outside Europe’s immediate neighbourhood.
In their introductions, STOA Chair Christian Ehler (EPP, Germany) and Chairman of the STS forum Komiyama Hiroshi praised the continued cooperation between their respective organisations, manifested in reciprocal visits, including this event and the planned STOA mission to the STS forum‘s 20th Annual Meeting later in 2023. Mr Ehler underlined that Europe and Japan share common values: their cooperation is founded on being open, democratic societies in an increasingly authoritarian world. Mr Komiyama reflected on the pitfalls and opportunities of international cooperation and the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in research. While AI might help bridge language and cultural gaps between researchers, he said, it must be carefully employed due to the factual errors and inaccuracies that sometimes appear in the output of large language models.
The politics of research cooperation
The first panel of the event dealt with the policy dimension of international research cooperation, chaired by STOA Vice Chair Ivars Ijabs (Renew, Latvia), who noted that researchers cooperate on their own all the time. He explained that politics can act as a constraint, for example for geopolitical reasons, or it can act as an enabling and helping force. In the case of Europe and Japan, initiatives such as association through Horizon Europe make it easier to bring people together.
Signe Ratso, the official responsible for international Horizon Europe cooperation at the European Commission, underlined this point. As likeminded partners, Japan and the EU can tackle today’s big challenges together, from the green transition to digitalisation and new ways to produce hydrogen. Ms Ratso also expressed her hope that together, they could ensure the research sector takes an active role in rebuilding Ukraine once the war is over. Her counterpart in the Japanese government Kiyoura Takashi, Deputy Director General of Science and Technology, drew parallels to a recent meeting of the G7 science ministers in Sendai, Japan, where they listed closer international cooperation as one of their top three priorities. As part of a larger science policy portfolio, Japan has recently opened a €360 million fund for research cooperation and talent mobility.
Emphasising the common challenges facing Japan and Europe, STOA Panel member Lina Gálvez Muñoz (S&D, Spain) noted these include not only climate change but also the less frequently mentioned demographic challenge of an ageing population. Shared values, such as gender equality, underpin the cooperation with Japan, and she hailed the recent signing of the Japan-EU digital partnership.
Salvatore Arico, CEO of the International Science Council, spoke about the relationship between science and policy, which ought to be based on the principles of freedom and responsibility. Science, he explained, needs a strong and enabling political framework. Providing in turn options to policy-makers, by identifying what we can and cannot do.
How does international science work?
After a Q&A session and a short break, STOA panel member Pernille Weiss (EPP, Denmark) introduced the second panel of the afternoon. This took an in-depth look at the experiences and the know-how among researchers who engage in international cooperation. First to speak was Thomas Pichler, a physicist from the University of Vienna who coordinates an European Research Council (ERC) synergy project with partners in Italy, Germany, and Japan. Research cooperation, he said, builds trust and might grow into deeper collaboration if the timeframe allows for continuous feedback and the full exploration of possible synergies. The ERC grant allows for this, and including Japanese partners will become even easier once the association agreement has been signed.
RIKEN’s Executive Director Naka Makiko went on to specify four conditions for successful research cooperation: excellence in research on both sides; funding; young, eager researchers who are willing to move to a different country for several years; and the time to develop a project.
Enrico Di Pietro is a nuclear fusion expert with experience in ITER and JT-60SA, two large-scale research cooperation projects in which Japan and Europe participate. He shared his unique insights into the challenges posed by such a multi-billion-euro, decades-long project. The lessons he drew about integrated leadership, in-kind payments and intercultural teambuilding may be applied to future projects. Continuing the theme of project management, NEDO’s representative in Europe Imazato Kazuyuki made three points. It is important, he said, to align the interests of the political, scientific, and the business side of any research project to get it off the ground. It is then crucial not to lose momentum, by defining milestones and providing incentives to reach them in time; and above all, building trust between partners is fundamental for cooperation. The final speaker, Marie‑Beatrice Madec from SOLVAY, agreed: the time and energy project management requires should never be underestimated. Part of the task is to enable researchers to share time and knowledge to allow them to bridge cultural and professional gaps.
Where do we go from here?
The event closed with a summary of the event. Yamazaki Takuya from JETRO Brussels highlighted the role of fundamental research in advancing science, which requires thinking outside of the box. Bringing researchers together fosters an atmosphere of cooperation, not competition, from which both public and private institutions can profit.
European Parliament Vice-President for STOA Marc Angel (S&D, Luxembourg) pointed out that a quarter of all science papers today are the product of international cooperation. Small countries and very big projects, such as ITER, stand to profit most from such cooperation, as long as the countries involved continue to be on good terms. He highlighted Horizon Europe as a great success in boosting cooperation that will continue to improve by adding new associated countries such as Japan. Today’s event, he added, was itself an example of the growing scientific partnership between Europe and Japan.
The final speaker Kaji Misako, from the Japanese Foreign Ministry, confirmed the Japanese government’s commitment to this partnership, adding that science and technology play an increasingly important role in today’s diplomacy. Together, Japan and Europe could work towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals by intensifying their research efforts, as was agreed during the Japanese G7 presidency this year.
The conference underlined the close, values-based relationship between Japan and Europe, as well as the will on both sides to continue fostering research cooperation. With Japan set to become a Horizon Europe associate country, existing ties will become stronger, both in terms of increased mobility of scientists as well as cooperation on larger projects.
A webstream of the event is available on our website.
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