We have fundamental sustainability challenges: growing population, food shortages, global warming, natural disasters, energy problems, poverty and terrorism. Science has a role to play to address these problems, and for that we need an integrated approach of collaboration and cooperation, mutual understanding and respect of differences, forgiveness, persistence and perseverance.
These were the words of Tohoku University’s Executive Vice President, Prof. Sadayoshi Ito, speaking at the 3rd Annual Elsevier Asia Pacific Research Intelligence Conference 2016 June 8-9 at Keio University in Tokyo. Dr. Ito, also a medical doctor by training, spoke about the university’s role as a trusted expert in maintaining the healthcare system in times of crisis.
Sendai, Japan, where Tohoku University is located, is the closest major city to the epicenter of the fourth most powerful earthquake ever recorded, which occurred on March 11, 2011, followed by a devastating tsunami. This natural disaster triggered the Fukushima meltdown, the most severe nuclear accident ever after Chernobyl. The devastating triple disaster claimed more than 16, 000 lives, caused the evacuation of over 340,000 people and left behind a huge restoration task. The World Bank estimates the economic cost of the disaster to be $235 billion.
Following the disaster, Tohoku University established two organizations: the International Research Institute for Disaster Science, bridging natural science, humanities and medicine, to predict, prevent and manage the effects of future natural disasters, and the Tohoku Medical Megabank to support the reconstruction of the community medical system and provide continuing support for health and welfare of those living in the Tohoku area.
Since the launch of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September 2015, there has been mounting pressure to contribute to solving the world’s biggest challenges. Collaboration among universities, government and industry is key to achieving the SDGs. At the conference in Tokyo, 170 delegates from 92 institutions across 10 countries gathered to discuss how to make this collaboration happen.
Watch a video about the conference
The age of international collaboration
It is no secret that collaboration is key to solving complex problems. Prof. Michael Khor, Director of the Research Support Office and Bibliometrics Analysis at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore, explained how international collaboration is increasingly becoming the norm:
This is the age of international collaboration. We have all heard about the mobility of students and researchers; it is no longer the case that a researcher will stay at one institution, or even in one country, for their entire career. More and more international consortia are being formed, and well-funded multinational research projects are bringing together researchers and institutions from around the world.
With this increase in intensity comes a complex picture of the research being conducted – an issue Dr. Khor believes metrics can help us understand:
Our global problems need a multidisciplinary approach, and we need metrics to help us find the right collaborators. Climate change is not going to be solved by physicists alone. It has to be solved across disciplinary and geographical borders.
Vice-Rector Prof. Michel Oris of Geneva University offered practical advice for interdisciplinary research collaborations. In order to organize an interdisciplinary research team, he said, researchers must agree on a theoretical model so they can speak together and reach objectives and targets. It’s easy for researchers to believe they all speak the same academic “language,” but that is not always the case. It is critical to define the essential terms of research from the beginning because these terms are often applied differently across disciplines.
Prof. Oris also advised that researchers secure their methods and be sure of them. “Interdisciplinary research is really learning by doing,” he said. “It’s not something that you learn in university.” He added that there could be tension as funding is channeled towards interdisciplinary research – tension as new constellations of research collaborations are formed.
A new dawn for research
The drive to solve these global problems is reflected in universities’ strategies. At last year’s conference, held in Shanghai, Prof. Jiro Kokuryo, Vice President for International Collaboration at Keio University in Japan, talked about the university’s new strategic focus on three major challenges facing society today: longevity; environmental, economic and regional security; and innovation in an information society.
The inspiration for this strategy came from the Japanese government. During her keynote address at this year’s conference, Prof. Yuko Harayama, Executive Member of the Council for Science, Technology and Innovation (CSTI) Cabinet Office, outlined Japan’s 5th Science and Technology Basic Plan, which aims to build a smarter “Society 5.0.” In order to build this society, she said, a new perspective is needed, putting people at the center of research.
To promote global leadership and support the societal impact of research, the government has already initiated a new grant – the Top Global University Project – which Keio University was awarded in 2014. Keio University President Prof. Atsushi Seike described the challenge:
Japan has suffered many severe natural disasters, and even with today’s technology, it is not possible to predict the timing and location of a natural disaster. This threat is of course a serious issue for every country, but this is particularly so for countries in the Asian Pacific region that sits on the Pacific Rim – the so called ring of fire of strong seismic and volcanic activity.
Vice President Toshiaki Makabe of Keio University reinforced the message of President Seike, emphasizing the Japan is the first advanced nation with a mature society but also a rapidly aging population. He underlines that education and research at universities must address these challenges.
Other countries in the region are introducing programs similar to Japan’s Society 5.0. The Thai government has started an initiative called Thailand 4.0, to drive the country’s development from a capital-led middle-income country to a knowledge- and innovation-led high-income country.
Academia and industry: a strong partnership?
In China, the government is taking a different approach. According to Prof. Wenhua Shan, Assistant President and founding Dean of the School of Law at Xi'an Jiaotong University (XJTU):
The reason for the slowdown is not that economy went bad; it’s that the government wanted it to slow down. They wanted to change the economic growth and development from one that emphasizes the quantity to one that emphasizes the quality. As a result, the government launched an innovation development strategy, which is on the leading edge of the new development strategy as a whole.
XJTU’s response is an Innovation Harbour (iHarbour) – a first-class scientific and technological sphere that pulls together the University’s interdisciplinary research, facilities and excellence with that of their industry partner Shaanxi. The result will be 23 interdisciplinary research institutes in which 25,000 “young talents” will carry out specialized research and technological development in eight areas.
This sort of industry-academia collaboration is increasingly popular throughout Asia, a radical change from the past, as Dr. Woo Il Lee, Executive Vice President of Seoul National University (SNU) in Korea, explained:
In the past, our cooperative activities with industry were quite simple: all we had to do was educate good students and provide them to industry. And industry, in the hope of monopolizing those good students, provided us with some very generous donations.
Funding models for the new collaborative era
Indeed, the flow of funding from industry to academia provides a strong foundation for the innovation required to tackle today’s big challenges and enable a positive impact of research on society. Dr. Lesley Thompson, Elsevier’s Director of Academic & Government Strategic Alliance in the UK, described the traditional governmental funding cycle: taxpayer money feeds government funding, which is awarded to researchers, who then come up with ideas and train people. These ideas become innovations which are adapted by industry, where they make profits that become income, which is eventually funneled to taxes, and so the cycle continues.
Alternatively, governments can promote industry funding models. Dr. Kazuo Hotate, the University of Tokyo’s Executive Vice President, spoke about how the Japanese government is fostering venture capital, enhancing collaboration with existing companies and increasing output to society. The university received government funding to improve the use of its research outcome, enabling the university to launch both a technology transfer office and technology incubator and start its own venture capital fund.
In Thailand, universities have taken a different approach to the evolving funding models. Dr. Sansanee Chaiyaroj, Vice President of Research and International Relation at Mahidol University, explained:
Many Thai professors are not necessarily risk takers. They are reluctant to try start-ups, so they are more focused on technology licensing. They suffered a bit in the first phase with spin-out/start up companies, and therefore thought perhaps a partnership would be better. So in the last five years, they have done more partnerships in the form of joint ventures.
For universities wanting to invest in this way, Fabrizio Arigoni, Head of Nestle’s Research Center Asia in Singapore, had some words of wisdom: this kind of model will work best if you involve external partners – venture capitalists – whose motivation is to make money. Internal politics can cloud the goals of such an undertaking, so having clarity from the outside is essential.
The funding model is one aspect of the complex dynamic that exists among research institutes, government and industry. This dynamic must be nurtured, collaboration facilitated and innovation fostered if we are to ensure universities have the biggest possible impact on society.