What can Science, Technology and Innovation Contribute to the Global Issues Today such as Sustainable Development Goals?

A discussion at Science Agora 2016, Tokyo

“Agora” was traditionally the square at the heart of discussion and civic participation of the Greek “polis”. “Science Agora” is the name chosen for the leading yearly event in Japan about science in society. Every year since 2006, policymakers, scientists and representatives of the productive sector have come to Science Agora to engage the public on their activities and results. Science Agora is also an occasion for scholars, policy makers and stakeholders to discuss key science in society issues.

This year, the eleventh edition of Science Agora was held at Miraikan, the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation and the other institutions at Odaiba area, Tokyo. The event ran from 3-6 November, with almost 10,000 participants attending and 176 organizations contributing to a rich program.

The kick off session, organized by Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST), asked “What can Science, Technology and Innovation Contribute to the Global Issues Today such as Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) We have to Cope with?”.

Michinari Hamaguchi, President of JST, and the other speakers of the session. Photo: courtesy of JST

After a welcome address by Michinari Hamaguchi, President of JST, Satoru Ohtake (JST and Cabinet Office ESRI) outlined the “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” approved by UN General Assembly in 2015 and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals, remarking that “all such goals require the contribution of science, technology and innovation”. He then invited panelists to share their views on the theme, focusing on options, strategies and potential problems in achieving goals and roadmaps for concerted action at the international level. He also asked commentators to address “what science can do to face key challenges”.

As co-chair of the session, I made an introductory comment on society’s and citizen’s expectations towards science. By presenting survey data from the Italian Science in Society Monitor, I argued that the stereotype of society only looking to science for solving practical problems needs to be revised. Citizens also look to science as a source of culture, “answers to Mankind’s great questions”, even entertainment. Reducing science to a “machine” - financial resources as input and practical solutions as output - can lead to farfetched expectations that can eventually backlash against science, its actors and institutions. Recognizing science as part of contemporary culture, with an open yet critical appraisal of what science can and cannot do, can also help establish its role in the context of key challenges.

David Cope (Cambridge University and RCAST, University of Tokyo), presented in detail the 169 targets associated with the general goals of SDGs. He emphasized the importance of targets in the area of health, and “capacity building” as one of the key element to face such challenges. We not only need research, but also to “make certain there is a new cohort, or continuing cohort of young scientists, engineers, journalists who go out to disseminate research”; “quality education” being one of the SDGs.

Rush D. Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), noted that despite discussions at the international level, “most scientists have not given much thought” to these themes. He emphasized that this is an opportunity to show that science is relevant to, and at least implicitly embedded in, any single SDGs . He also described the sustainability goals as an opportunity to communicate that “science is a systematic way of asking questions so that can be answered with evidence, and such evidence can be communicated openly”.

By showing successful examples both from Japan and from the international context, such as in the area of environmental protection, Tateo Arimoto (Professor at National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies and JST), stated that “we can transform our society by combination of technology innovation and social innovation”.

Describing the level of awareness of these challenges in South Africa and the need for inclusion of different social groups, Michael Ellis (Science Communication Manager, South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement, South Africa) mentioned the example of the Square Kilometre Array Telescope, a global partnership to build the world’s large telescope in South Africa and Australia and the importance of local communities “getting on board” such projects.

Rosa Paula Cuevas (Scientist, Grain Quality and Nutrition Center, International Rice Research Institute, Philippines), Nuwong Chollacoop (Head of Renewable Energy Laboratory, MTEC, Thailand) and Shoji Komai (Professor, Nara Institute of Science and Technology) pointed out the different challenges posed by different research fields and world regions. Leading the discussion with the audience, I also emphasized this point by remarking the importance of matching global challenges with an understanding of the diversity of social and cultural contexts, rather than expecting to find homogenous, standardized responses.

Rounding up the session, Satoru Ohtake expressed the intention to make this occasion only the first step in a continuing international discussion, and looked forward to opportunities in the context of future international meetings such as the Science Forum South Africa (SFSA), AAAS Annual Meetings, EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) and the World Science Forum (WSF).

Massimiano Bucchi, University of Trento. Editor, Public Understanding of Science