Science and Technology in Canada-Japan Relations: Facing Together the Challenges of COVID-19 and Beyond

Science and Technology in Canada-Japan Relations: Facing Together the Challenges of COVID-19 and Beyond

On February 25, 2021, CIPS hosted the webinar “Facing the Pandemic Together: Canada-Japan Science and Technology Cooperation.” After an introduction by Ambassador Yasuhisa Kawamura, there was a lively discussion with Howard Alper (uOttawa), Melanie Cullins (National Research Council), Yuko Harayama (RIKEN), Ichiro Taniuchi (RIKEN), and Mark Lathrop (McGill University). The seminar provided an overview of best practices, a presentation of ongoing Research (notably on COVID-19), and a discussion of future cooperation on science, technology and innovation (STI). 

Participants addressed social aspects of researcher and student mobility, which are regrettably diminished due to pandemic travel restrictions. Experienced researchers may be able to temporarily replace their exchanges with online platforms. Webinars, however, do not permit younger scholars to meet new people and cultivate personal relations through the informal conversations and meals that happen in the interstices of scientific meetings. This recalls the words of Hantaro Nagaoka, first director of RIKEN’s physics division, who said, “Research is people. First comes researchers, second comes researchers, third comes researchers, and fourth comes equipment.” 

From a policy perspective, the social side of science is as important as the resulting technology. Science does not happen in a void. It is part of wider relations between people, and by extension, between peoples. Canada-Japan STI cooperation is part of a broader story of Canada-Japan relations, which date back to 1928 when Canada’s Embassy in Tokyo became Canada’s third diplomatic mission in the world. Japanese and Canadian STI development worked at cross purposes during WWII but has been marked ever since by deepening collaboration. 

Watch the CIPS Webinar

Ongoing Canada-Japan STI Collaboration

From the NRC, Melanie Cullins summarized recent bilateral collaboration. Although Canada-Japan scientific collaboration has accelerated since the 1986 signing of a bilateral treaty on STI cooperation, the NRC has been strongly invested in Japan since their first co-publication with Japanese scientists in 1960. Despite the challenges of COVID-19, momentum continues. The NRC signed 22 agreements with 16 Japanese organizations in 2020 and another nine in the first two months of 2021. Since 2019, the NRC has hosted “matchmaking opportunities” to connect 140 Canadian small and medium enterprises with about 65 Japanese companies. In October 2019, the Canada-Japan STI relationship was judged to be so important that, as the NRC opened their first international office, they chose to do so in Tokyo. They plan to emphasize “2+2” Research, matching private and public sector actors from both countries. 

RIKEN, originally established as a private foundation in 1917 (a year after the NRC’s foundation), is Japan’s largest and most comprehensive scientific research organization. The name RIKEN is the abbreviated form of Rikagaku Kenkyūjo, Institute of Physical and Chemical Research, but its scope has expanded considerably. RIKEN has collaborative agreements with over 270 overseas institutions, including joint research centres and laboratories around the world. Yuko Harayama, RIKEN Executive Director of International Affairs, gave examples of collaboration with Canada, including ongoing agreements and projects with universities. Before COVID-19, STI collaboration included summer schools for Canadian students. RIKEN’s supercomputer Fugaku, the world’s fastest computer, is now being used to develop therapies and vaccines and to understand the social dimensions of COVID-19. Harayama concluded her talk by saying, “We try to put into practice open science by sharing data globally.” 

Ichiro Tanaguchi and Mark Lathrop discussed joint collaboration on COVID-19 Research between the RIKEN Centre for Integrative Medical Sciences and the McGill Genome Centre. In the pandemic era, they are comparing genome data of healthy people and of COVID-19 patients for genetic factors that may be associated with individual differences in susceptibility to COVID-19. Lathrop added further information about a joint Ph.D. program between McGill and the University of Kyoto. Pointing out the social side of the collaboration, Lathrop said, “Having experience in multiple research systems is important for career development and, in fact, can be career changing for students.” 

The Importance of STI in International Public Policy 

Louis Pasteur famously said, “Science has no borders, but scientists have their own mother countries.” This webinar illustrated the national dimensions of scientific collaboration, not least by presenting photos of Prime Ministers Justin Trudeau and Shinzō Abe observing the signing of bilateral STI agreements. In his concluding comments, Alper looked to the future, saying, “I think now is the opportunity to create new opportunities for Japan and Canada, not only in the areas mentioned but in other areas of national priority, be it connected to climate science, energy, etc.” 

Scientific Research does not exist independent of geopolitical concerns. Japan is now taking the lead in constructing a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. This will need STI collaboration, especially as the strategy evolves beyond immediate concerns of security and defence. Referring to the G7 Science and Technology Ministers’ Declaration, Ambassador Kawamura said that STI collaboration is important not only in itself “but also for making international science and technology cooperation in areas such as AI consistent with human rights, fundamental freedoms and our shared democratic values.” Democracy enriches scientific collaboration because it permits scientists and students to exchange freely, without even thinking about possible state surveillance of their private conversations or political consequences of human relations that are inevitably about more than technology.

“Research is people. First comes researchers, second comes researchers, third comes researchers, and fourth comes equipment.”

 Hantaro Nagaoka

Nowadays, some states seem to be using technological advances in AI for surveillance technologies to oppress their own citizens. There is an increasing risk that STI can be used for military aggression. Even on COVID-19, which should be a shared global quest for solutions, some states have been less reliable than others in cooperation with Canada; or have weaponized masks and vaccines. In this context, and especially if austerity follows the pandemic, states must allocate scarce resources wisely. With shared values of human rights and democracy, Canada and Japan can collaborate with others to create a science-based Free and Open Indo-Pacific. Together, our scientists can tackle COVID-19 and address emerging priorities of climate change and technologies’ ethical use. Canada and Japan collaborate to hope that our science may eventually convince even the most recalcitrant states to join us in a world of peace, shared human rights, and mutual prosperity.

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