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Editorial: Japan cannot rely on science to solve the global issues we face today

To respond to global issues including infectious diseases and the environment, the power of science is indispensable. But our problems cannot be solved by science alone. Opposing values and interests make it difficult to reach one answer. Knowledge must be brought together to work toward overcoming these problems.

    Coronavirus countermeasures are a typical example of this, as it is difficult to balance infection prevention with social and economic activities. Nations have repeatedly implemented restrictions and then relaxed them only to see case numbers rebound. Mutant strains are just adding to the confusion. Though 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 seeking to cut greenhouse gas emissions to virtually zero to keep average global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. But ensuring both wide-ranging and speedy emissions reductions long with a stable energy supply is not a simple task. Developed nations, which have produced huge volumes of emissions, must be fair with developing nations hoping to rise economically.

    The latest edition of the World Economic Forum's Global Risks Report identifies extreme weather, infectious diseases, biodiversity loss, digital inequality, and livelihood crises among threats that humanity faces in the next decade, and calls for international cohesion and cooperation. All of the problems raised cannot be solved solely by science.

    Awareness that science is not a panacea has existed for more than half a century. The U.S. physicist Alvin M. Weinberg first championed the concept of "trans-science" in 1972. The thinking behind this is that science cannot always provide adequate answers for modern society's ills. The expansion and globalization of society has complicated these problems. At the same time, scientific disciplines continue to atomize. Weinberg maintained that we must think not within single specializations, but from a full, societal perspective.

    This involves people from diverse positions coming together to offer their knowledge, and aiming to solve issues. One example of this is the residential participation project in Hokkaido's city of Iwamizawa.

    In Iwamizawa, the fertility rate was just 1.26 in 2018, compared to 1.42 nationwide. To stem the declining birth rate, the city sought to "create an environment where people can feel safe to raise children," and took steps including offering maternity courses. But there was a limit to how much government could do on its own.

    It was then that Hokkaido University, Hitachi Ltd. and other universities and companies came together to start mother-and-child health surveys for pregnant women. If the women surveyed answer a questionnaire on their lifestyle habits, and contribute test samples of their blood, stool and urine, plus information, they can get dietary and childrearing advice from experts.

    The universities provide scientifically-backed views on pregnancy, giving birth, eating and other factors. Public health and medical nurses leverage their work experiences in the research and the content of the advice, and the companies use marketing methods to encourage expectant mothers to change their behavior.

    About 30% of pregnant women going to participating hospitals took part in the survey. In five years, there was reportedly a steep fall in underweight births. The data collected are expected to be used in the creation of new governmental mother-and-child health services.

    Project leader Masanori Yoshino has said, "Until now, experts have tried to solve problems by relying only on their own knowledge, but it's clear that it's difficult to do it that way."

    What this case illuminates is that if every city resident perceives a societal issue as their problem and acts accordingly, it is possible to improve the situation. But though we might be facing the same difficulty, the circumstances differ based on where we are and what society is like there. There must be efforts to pay attention to each of their characteristics and the views of the relevant individuals.

    In March 2021, the Japanese government stated in its Science, Technology, and Innovation Basic Plan that it will promote the convergence of knowledge, which does not rely only on scientific expertise. It envisages mobilizing views from the natural sciences and the humanities and social sciences.

    But just gathering expert knowledge is pointless. What is sought is active partnerships involving the exchange of expertise between not just scientists, but politicians, bureaucrats, residents and others.

    The question is: How can we build a basis for various people to work together in facing increasingly complicated issues?

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