In a recent Confidence in Research roundtable, organized by the Japanese Association for the Advancement of Science (JAAS) and Elsevier, Japanese researchers met with high-level representatives from government.
For Japan, the pandemic has accelerated a much-needed digital transformation of society. Within the science community, there is increased interest in open science, with institutions mandating data sharing, and one funder launching its own preprint server — the first for Japan.
Japan’s science footprint, however, remains of concern. While Japan is still the third largest global investor in research and development according to OECD, its academic institutions have fallen in rankings, and for the first time, Japan is not among the top 10 nations with the most top 10% cited scientific papers.
Is Japan losing its stride and confidence as a science powerhouse? This question was at the heart of a lively discussion of researchers, funders and policymakers September 5 held at the International House of Japan in Tokyo and virtually. The roundtable stemmed from our partnership with key stakeholders in the Japanese research community.
In early 2022, a group of engaged scientists and supporters of science established the Japanese Association for the Advancement of Science (JAAS) with the mission to energize Japanese science. With this sense of purpose and energy, JAAS became the perfect partner for Elsevier to collaborate with on the Confidence in Research campaign, which involves a landmark global survey of 3,000 researchers conducted by Economist Impact to identify critical and actionable insights.
As part of a global series of regional roundtables, Elsevier and JAAS assembled a broad range of important stakeholders from across Japan’s research ecosystem to discuss the drivers of confidence in research, which included Economist Impact sharing the insights of the nearly 400 researchers surveyed in Japan. Moderated by Dr Yuko Harayama, Co-Director of JAAS and former Executive Member of the Council for Science, Technology and Innovation in the Cabinet Office, the roundtable attracted high-level participation from Japan’s policymakers, funders, research institutes, the media and senior and early-career researchers.
Afterwards, Dr Harayama commented:
Insights from the roundtable
In the closed-door session held under the Chatham House Rule (where opinions expressed can be mentioned but not attributed to individual participants), six insights emerged:
1. We need greater evidence-informed policymaking and transparency in decision-making.
Policies are dependent on public trust, and increasingly evidence around scholarly output, knowledge transfer and societal impact are used to justify investment. An issue raised at the roundtable was a lack of transparency in decision-making. Are decisions made at a political or funding body level? And on what scientific basis are decisions made? Notably, as the pandemic is still ongoing in Japan with high infection rates even recently, these questions are ongoing. Increased transparency will increase trust between policymakers and scientists, within the scientific community and among the general public.
2. We need to support science communication and dialogue across sectors.
The response from surveyed researchers in Japan indicates a keen interest to engage in science communication. Some also engaged on social media. However, there is a need to expand and further promote the community of science communicators through specialized training and recognize it as an important profession. Researchers also want to engage more outside the science community, including with corporations and the general public. Attendees, however, expressed that the interface between academia and industry has not been working as well as it should and that we need more constructive dialogue between academia and industry to consolidate mutual trust.
3. Few reliable sources were used during the pandemic.
There was an interesting discussion focused on a separate survey (in Japanese) by JAAS conducted among its members and supporters around what information sources were used to answer questions about the pandemic and vaccine hesitancy. As expected, among those with a post-graduate degree, the willingness to be vaccinated was higher. Furthermore, when participants were asked to rank which information sources they used to obtain information on vaccines; they ranked them as such:
- The website of the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labor
- The website of Cov-Navi, organized by medical/health professionals, including Prof Sohtaro Mine of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, one of the roundtable participants
- The website of highly recognized stem cell researcher Shinya Yamanaka, 2012 Nobel Prize Laureate in Medicine and Physiology
- International websites such as those of WHO and the CDC
A science communicator in attendance mentioned the need to be able to communicate uncertainty — i.e., instances where there are no definite answers or where there are still unknowns. Furthermore, it is important not to assume the audience is less knowledgeable. In Dr Harayama’s opinion, people become frustrated if they can’t get the information they need to answer their questions; this was especially so at the height of the COVID pandemic.
4. The process of science needs to be better understood
To build trust among scientists and broader stakeholders, it is important for all to have an understanding of how science is conducted. A senior engineering professor stated:
If results are just shared without knowing how you obtain them, it can cause mistrust.
He reiterated the need for trained science communicators:
When experts communicate, they discuss a lot of technicalities, but we also need professionals who can communicate effectively to people who are not trained in the sciences.
A participant from the business community expressed concerns that scientists often only discuss the science itself without considering the broader societal context, which can dilute the impact of the message. She said she has experienced this when discussing climate change.
5. We need both fast and slow science.
With the increasing speed of science and the growing use of preprints to communicate early results from research, several participating scientists raised concerns about information overload, the sharing of early results under pressure that later turned out to be wrong, and the risk of science becoming entertainment. Participants expressed that the pandemic has reminded us of the need for “slow science” — a concept introduced by the Belgian philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers in 2013, originally in French “Une autre science est possible!” (English translation here). Panelists argued that the plurality of science — that is, the plurality of areas being investigated and the balance between curiosity-driven science and applied research — could be threatened if the current speed and volume of research results remain uncontrolled and overtake the slow, steady, methodical and collaborative process of science, which may in the long-term lead to better outcomes than looking for “quick fixes.”
A senior journal editor also expressed concern about the explosion of scientific articles being published, the increasing number of new journals, and the challenge to find quality reviewers. “It’s becoming difficult to manage,” he said.
In this context, there was recognition for the need for both fast and slow science. There was also discussion that some relatively new and fast-moving areas, such as AI, may privilege the “fast science” track, whereas traditional “areas that are covered in textbooks” are more suited for “slow science” — but this does not necessarily mean that these tracks are mutually exclusive.
6. The research ecosystem needs to transform its mechanisms of reward and recognition.
For the research ecosystem to accommodate both slow and fast science, the reward system must be reconsidered. In the survey of Japanese researchers, two-thirds stated that having their research published in peer reviewed journals is the most important. This is followed by having their research being highly cited. Communicating science to a broader audience was not viewed as being as important for promotion. Most notably, the use of social media was not seen to be an important criteria for career advancement.
A participant from a funding agency expressed concern that science has become too metrics-driven, even too focused on social media that it risks being “science entertainment.” He stressed the importance of ensuring that the review system can filter out what is good and trustworthy science. In contrast, another participant from a government think tank expressed the importance of new media forms to communicate science, raising public interest and sparking citizen science that could also inspire new research.
Learning to prepare for the future
In her final remarks, Dr Harayama emphasized the importance of trust in science, reinforced the need for better science communication, and highlighted that the science system must be prepared for the next crisis.
The Japan roundtable provided many insights while raising questions to be followed up. The rich and lively discussions highlighted the importance of bringing together key stakeholders to build trust among scientists and reinforce the processes for trusted science. It will certainly be inspiring to move forward on this journey with JAAS and other regional and global stakeholders.
The full analysis from the Confidence in Research collaboration will be available in the latter part of autumn. To find out more about the collaboration in the meantime, please visit our Confidence in Research hub.