Stepping up research collaboration with Asia, Africa

Aiming to strengthen Japan’s global influence and soft power through the internationalisation of higher education, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government is turning the spotlight on research collaboration – in particular strengthening joint research with developing countries in Africa and Asia.

The country’s joint research programme brings together Japanese and foreign universities for projects under the Core-to-Core Program of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, or JSPS, an independent organisation supported by the government that administers science funding to higher education institutions.

Last year the JSPS, also known as Gakushin, established two major joint research programmes: building advanced research networks with richer nations, and the Asia-Africa Science Platform.

The partnerships, including the advanced networks, are to conduct collaborative research on “issues of high international priority” and on developing country challenges such as water resources, climate change, disasters and tropical medicine.

The projects are conducted over five years on average, with JSPS funding of around US$200,000 annually for Japanese institutions. Workshops, seminars and conferences are included in the research activities.

Makiko Segawa, who is in charge of the joint research section at JSPS, told University World News: “Asia and Africa are important regions for Japan, and the establishment of ‘core’ institutions in participating countries to spearhead joint study is a step in this direction.”

A committee of experts is in charge of the selection of research activities between Japanese universities and foreign counterparts that include European and American institutions. For Asia in particular the government is proposing an Asian region science and technology ministerial summit to promote such interaction.

“The joint study projects are supported by Japanese and local funds and they represent new opportunities for the collaborators,” said Professor Ikuo Hirono of Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology.

Supporting global sustainable development

One of Japan’s aims is to use research collaboration to benefit global sustainable development.

On its current list of Core-to-Core projects in Africa, for instance, are wildlife conservation in Tanzania, and aquatic and ecosystem conservation and malaria elimination based in Kenya. There are also Asia-Africa projects in the equatorial ionosphere, technology for disease prevention and diagnosis, and water resource and environmental management for Asian and African mega-deltas.

“The ultimate aim is to support more equitable and thus sustainable growth on global terms,” Hirono said.

He is involved in a programme that deploys Japanese technology and marketing strategy to help Thailand produce higher quality marine products. Hirono’s research partner is Kasetsart University in Thailand. Funds were extended by Japan and the Thai government in 2011 for biotechnology for aquaculture and aquaculture risk management.

Another of the international research projects is on gravitational wave astronomy led by the University of Tokyo Institute for Cosmic Ray Research, and including Korea University and India’s Inter-University Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Professor Hiromu Shimizu, head of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University, has extensive experience in joint research. The centre promotes collaborative research between Japanese experts and colleagues in top universities in the region across a wide spectrum including the economy, environmental protection and social sciences.

Shimizu explained that 15 years of collaboration had led to important research and had helped to highlight the merits of partnerships with a region that in the past had played a limited role in global research.

Indeed, this year, the research activities led to the establishment of the Consortium for Southeast Asian Studies in Asia, a network-style academic cooperation platform.

“The consortium is a multilateral regional forum for promoting collaboration and exchanges among Southeast Asia and other East Asia-based Southeast Asianists,” Shimizu told University World News. The network has gained attention in Japan in advance of the formal establishment of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, in 2015.

A different relationship

Shimizu added that research between richer Japan and developing Southeast Asia had moved away from the traditional stance of transferring Japan’s superior technology to an emerging region. In Asia the quality of research has risen considerably.

“Our research counterparts [in Asia] offer invaluable expertise if not even better knowledge than Japanese experts, a trend that is noticeable in the past few years. Asian researchers are internationally educated and highly committed,” he said.

Hirono noted that such high quality collaboration is crucial for Japan’s own research. Asia provides huge opportunities for conducting fieldwork and experiments, apart from contributing important knowledge.

“Japan, as a country dependent on natural resources from Asia, needs to develop close and sustainable relations with those countries and joint research is an important pillar in this national goal,” he said, referring to the country’s dependence on imports for 90% of its energy and a substantial proportion of its natural resources and food.

He cited his own project. Japan is Thailand’s top import destination for marine products, an important foundation for the joint research project. Hirono’s ongoing joint aquaculture project with Thai collaborators aims not only strengthen and sustain this trade but also to become a hub to share research in the region.