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Editorial: Japan Cannot Count on Science to Solve the Global Problems We Face Today

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To respond to global problems, including infectious diseases and the environment, the power of science is essential. But our problems cannot be solved by science alone. Conflicting values ​​and interests make it difficult to get an answer. Knowledge must be gathered to work to overcome these problems.

Coronavirus countermeasures are a case in point, as it is difficult to balance infection prevention with social and economic activities. Nations have repeatedly implemented restrictions and then relaxed them to see the number of cases rebound. Mutant strains only add to the confusion. Although scientists can predict the infection situation and suggest prevention measures, they do not have a perfect answer on how to coexist with infectious diseases.

On climate change, scientists are looking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to virtually zero to keep the global average temperature rise 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. But securing both extensive and rapid emission reductions with a stable energy supply is no simple task. Developed countries, which have produced huge volumes of emissions, must be fair with developing countries in the hope of growing their economy.

The latest edition of the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report identifies extreme weather conditions, infectious diseases, biodiversity loss, digital inequalities and livelihood crises among the threats humanity will face over the course of this decade. the next decade, and calls for international cohesion and cooperation. Not all of the issues raised can be solved by science alone.

The realization that science is not a panacea has existed for more than half a century. The American physicist Alvin M. Weinberg first defended the concept of “trans science” in 1972. The idea behind this is that science cannot always provide adequate answers to the ills of modern society. The expansion and globalization of society have complicated these problems. At the same time, scientific disciplines continue to atomize. Weinberg argued that we need to think not within single specializations, but from a full societal perspective.

It involves people in various positions coming together to offer their knowledge and aim to solve problems. One example is the residential participation project in the city of Iwamizawa in Hokkaido.

In Iwamizawa, the fertility rate was only 1.26 in 2018, compared to 1.42 nationally. To stem the decline in the birth rate, the city has sought to “create an environment where people can feel safe raising children,” and has taken action, including offering maternity classes. But there was a limit to what the government could do on its own.

It was then that Hokkaido University, Hitachi Ltd. and other universities and businesses have come together to launch surveys on maternal and child health of pregnant women. If the women interviewed answer a lifestyle questionnaire and provide blood, stool and urine samples, as well as information, they can get expert dietary and educational advice.

Universities provide scientifically substantiated views on pregnancy, childbirth, diet, and other factors. Public health and medical nurses draw on their professional experiences in research and counseling content, and companies use marketing methods to encourage pregnant women to change their behavior.

About 30% of pregnant women attending participating hospitals participated in the survey. In five years, there would have been a sharp drop in underweight births. The data collected should be used in the creation of new government maternal and child health services.

Project manager Masanori Yoshino said, “So far the experts have tried to solve the problems based only on their own knowledge, but it is clear that it is difficult to do it this way. ”

What this case highlights is that if every inhabitant of the city perceives a societal problem as their problem and acts accordingly, it is possible to improve the situation. But while we may face the same difficulty, the circumstances are different depending on where we are and what the company is like there. There must be efforts to pay attention to each of their characteristics and the views of those affected.

In March 2021, the Japanese government declared in its Basic Plan for Science, Technology and Innovation that it would promote the convergence of knowledge, which does not rely solely on scientific expertise. It plans to mobilize the gaze of the natural sciences and the human and social sciences.

But there is no point in gathering expert knowledge. What is sought after are active partnerships involving the exchange of expertise between not only scientists, but politicians, bureaucrats, residents and others.

The question is: how can we build a basis for different people to work together in the face of increasingly complex problems?