A head shot of Dr. Hashimoto

Emerging Technology, Networks, and Trust in Science: A Conversation with Dr. Kazuhito Hashimoto

Dr. Hashimoto is Science and Technology Advisor to the Cabinet of Japan and President of Japan Science and Technology Agency

Science Advisor Questions science advice Japan East Asia

Kazuhito Hashimoto is currently the President of the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST) and serves as the Science and Technology Advisor to the Cabinet for the Government of Japan. He earned his BS (1978), MS (1980), and Doctor of Science degree (1985) in Chemistry from the University of Tokyo. Previously, he held the position of Professor of Applied Chemistry at the University of Tokyo from 1991 to 2016, followed by his role as President of the National Institute for Materials Science (NIMS) from 2016 to 2022. Hashimoto's research interests lie in the areas of physical chemistry and materials science. He has also been actively involved in science and technology policy as an executive member of the Council for Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (CSTI) from 2013 to 2022. Hashimoto has received numerous awards for his contributions to the field of science, including the Japan Prime Minister Award (2004), the Imperial Award/Japan Invention Award (2006), the Japan Chemical Society Award (2012), the Electrochemical Society Heinz Gerischer Award (2017), and the Medal of Honor with Purple Ribbon (awarded by the Emperor of Japan in 2019).

The conversation with Dr. Kazuhito Hashimoto is part of a series of interviews with national science advisors who attended the 2023 AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, DC. All science advisors in the series were asked the same questions.

Montgomery (interviewer): What are the most pressing scientific issues that governments are facing? How are you adapting to the increasing complexity and changing nature of those global challenges? What are some mechanisms that a science advisor has at his or her disposal to highlight the role of science in addressing those global challenges and to elevate the role of science in foreign policy more generally?

Hashimoto: Today, science and technology are developing at a far faster pace than we have ever imagined. In addition, the distance between fundamental research, applied research, and implementation is greatly reduced, and in some cutting-edge fields such as artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum technology, basic research and everyday use can proceed simultaneously. Many people are surprised that AI, which can mimic human conversation and answer our questions, is now easily accessible on the internet. However, there have already been reports on the negative aspects of such AI, and there are even calls for it to be banned.

At the same time, the impact that science and technology have on society is becoming increasingly significant, and their importance in policymaking is growing, particularly with regard to emerging technologies such as AI, quantum technology, cybersecurity, and biotechnology, which are essential not only for achieving a better society but also for securing national interests and ensuring security. Cutting-edge technologies can change society significantly—both positively and negatively. How to effectively steer cutting-edge scientific and technological advancements is an important challenge for governments.

Turning to the global situation, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and fears of economic insecurity due to related geopolitical tensions have led to a growing momentum for international cooperation among like-minded countries. Also, with the increasing sophistication of science, even fundamental research requires enormous amounts of funding, and only a limited number of countries and sectors are able to invest sufficiently in research. In such situations, it is critical to promote research more efficiently through collaboration. At the same time, broader global cooperation is essential to mitigate the impacts of global challenges, such as climate change, pandemics, food security, and energy issues, and to find solutions for a sustainable future. That is to say, it is important to balance the cooperation of like-minded countries for securing national interests with global cooperation that contributes to the whole world’s interests.

To do so, dialogue with partners across borders is essential. Since I was assigned as the science and technology advisor in September 2022, I have had many dialogues. Recently, in March 2023, I hosted the G7 Science and Technology Advisors’ Roundtable, where we had a frank and meaningful exchange of opinions on international brain circulation, research integrity, and security. I believe that understanding other parties’ thoughts through dialogue significantly enhances the role of science in foreign policy.

Montgomery: Science encompasses a huge array of issues, including technology, health, environmental concerns, and much more. As a scientific advisor, you have to represent the entirety of this massive and complex field on a national scale. How do you approach this daunting task? What experience and skills are required? What advice would you give someone interested in preparing themselves to be eligible for this role in the future?

Hashimoto: As a scientific advisor, one of my most important missions is to provide the Prime Minister with freshly updated advice based on cutting-edge science and technology trends from the perspective of a scientist who understands the mechanisms of science and technology policymaking as well.

First of all, I need to have up-to-date information at all times. To do so, having a network with various people, especially industrial and academic scientists who are involved in cutting-edge research is extremely important. Since I am a chemist with over thirty years of research experience as a professor at the University of Tokyo, I have strong networks with researchers from not only chemistry but various emerging technologies as well. I have also actively engaged in joint research with industry, which built wide-ranging networks. By leveraging such networks and making a continuous effort to maintain and update them, I can always ask experts about matters outside my field with just a phone call. Once I understand the essence of the issues, even if it is not in my area of expertise, I can see at least one way to address them. Creating such an environment is crucial for the work of a scientific advisor.

In addition, my advice must be actionable. Again, it is important to have a network of contacts. As I will elaborate later, I have served as a member of various government expert committees for nearly ten years while continuing my research, and I have a network of science and technology administration officials in relevant ministries. I strive to provide scientifically optimal and feasible advice by using such networks.

For people in the next generation who aspire to serve as science and technology advisors, I suggest that they not only develop expertise in their field but also form a network across a wide range of sectors.

Montgomery: While science can be considered a universal language, it also encompasses subjects and jargon that can be difficult to grasp for those who are not trained in the field. As someone who provides scientific advice to people without scientific backgrounds, what advice do you have to give to other scientists on how to communicate their work in a way that is widely understandable?

Hashimoto: When I talk about science with people in various positions, such as scientists, politicians, government officials, citizens, and others, I make sure to put myself in their shoes and consider their perspectives. It's important to empathize and understand their point of view in order to find common ground and facilitate productive discussions.

Based on such perspectives, I have a few general tips that scientists should keep in mind to effectively communicate to non-scientific audiences. First, it’s important to know your audience and their level of knowledge in your field. This can help you tailor your message to their level of understanding, making it more accessible and engaging. Second, using simple language is essential to ensuring that your message is easy to understand. Avoid using technical jargon and complex terminology that your audience may not be familiar with, and instead opt for clear, straightforward language that everyone can comprehend. Third, storytelling is a powerful tool for communicating scientific work. By using real-life examples and anecdotes to illustrate your points, you can help your audience better understand and remember the information you are presenting.

The ultimate goal of communicating science is to make it accessible and understandable to as many people as possible. By following these tips, scientists can better engage with non-scientific audiences and help bridge the gap between science and the general public.

Montgomery: Do you believe that, on both a national and global level, we are seeing a change in the public perspective toward science? If you are seeing a shift, is it positive or negative, and what can scientists and politicians alike do to either encourage this positive perception or rebuild trust?

Hashimoto: The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in March 2011 was a major disaster that left a deep scar in Japan and caused distrust in science among the public. The accident caused many people to be concerned about their health and daily life, and the confusion surrounding by the accident, as well as the lack of information and misinformation from the government and the power company involved, may have amplified the public’s distrust in science. In Japan, this accident has led to efforts not only to improve the safety of nuclear power generation but also to reduce public distrust of science, such as strengthening risk communication and providing explanations of scientific evidence to the general public.

Despite these efforts, during the initial phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was also confusion on the part of the government, which further increased distrust of science. However, as scientific research progressed and began to contribute to society, the public came to appreciate science. Many people around the world have expressed gratitude for the medical innovations and biotechnology such as vaccines, testing kits, and therapeutic drugs, as well as digital technologies that have enabled remote education and remote work. I believe experiencing the pandemic has heightened the recognition of the importance of science and technologies and expectations for them. Speaking of digital technologies, addressing the digital divide and promoting social acceptance of digital technology are important challenges, too. Discussions surrounding the adoption of conversational AI, as mentioned in the first question, can serve as a good starting point. While this poses a challenge, through appropriate, careful, and open discussion, I hope to turn this into an opportunity and work towards mutual trust between society and science.

It is increasingly important for people worldwide to be able to enjoy the benefits of science in addressing global issues, even as some countries and regions are still not benefiting from many scientific technologies. Eight years have passed since the adoption of the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, with the halfway point now behind us. Some goals have been delayed due to the impact of COVID-19, and we are at a crucial point where we need to boost science, technology, and innovations for the SDGs and strengthen the second half of the effort towards achieving them, while also beginning to consider the period after 2030.

Montgomery: Science and politics are two fields that have historically failed to provide adequate representation of the societies they represent. We have seen a shift toward more inclusivity in both of these fields, but there is still a long way to go. How can we continue to improve both fields to make sure that they are adequately serving all of society?

Hashimoto: In order for science and politics to contribute to society, there need to be positive cycles where scientific findings are accurately and appropriately reflected in policies, leading to the realization of a better society.

In my case, as I mentioned earlier, I have been immersed in cutting-edge scientific research, mainly in chemistry and materials science, for about thirty years. I learned from this experience that information from researchers is not always well connected to policymakers, and a bridge between them was necessary. Therefore, about ten years ago, I began to focus on reflecting the perspective of researchers into policymaking. While also being involved in research, I served on the Japanese government's Industrial Competitiveness Council and the Science, Technology, and Innovation Council at the Cabinet Office of Japan.

Fortunately, I have accumulated diverse experiences in the fields of research, research management, and science policy. However, in Japan, where career mobility is relatively low, such a nonlinear career path has been challenging, and I have been struggling with how to pass it on to the next generation. Recently, I heard about AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships from Dr. Sudip Parikh, CEO of AAAS, when we met each other in January 2023. I was impressed by the fact that the United States has been fostering professionals who can bridge the gap between science and policy for fifty years, and that many fellowship graduates are now playing active roles. I believe that Japan should introduce similar initiatives and have started to explore this possibility.

As mentioned earlier, it is essential to achieve a positive cycle in which scientific knowledge is reflected effectively in policies for a better society. Meanwhile, as I also mentioned earlier, significant scaling up of research costs may cause huge disparities between countries and organizations. Keeping this always in mind, various forms of inclusion, from local or national to global, must be considered.

Those who connect science and politics should also be able to connect science and society and remain aware of societal needs. I hope to see more individuals with these abilities actively contributing around the world, and Japan also hopes to foster such talent and make contributions for a better world.

Disclaimer: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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