Japanese vice minister hopes for a deal with Brussels by April – but terms ‘might take some time.’ The key aim for Tokyo is increasing R&D cooperation with EU one way or another
The Japanese government might budget about €10 million a year for greater scientific cooperation with the European Union on climate, agriculture, artificial intelligence and other strategic areas, according to Japan’s vice minister for innovation policy.
In an interview with Science|Business, Koichi Akaishi said his government wants to expand R&D collaboration with Europe – perhaps by becoming an associate member of its next big programme, Horizon Europe. “We might start with some very small funding, maybe €10 million” a year, he said, adding that he hopes for an EU-Japanese agreement on Horizon Europe by April 2020.
That depends on how quickly the EU decides on its own plans for cooperation - and in any case, the legal details of how the collaboration happens are less important than the fact that it does happen somehow, said Akaishi. It might also be possible to collaborate in simpler ways than formal Horizon membership – for instance, jointly planning calls for research proposals on specific topics.
“In this very difficult global situation, including a struggle for hegemony between economies, we think it’s critical to have good cooperation with the EU” in R&D, Akaishi said. “We do not care so much about the modality, as long as there is a substantial cooperation.”
Akaishi’s comments, during a visit to Brussels, highlight the international interest in the planned €94.1 billion Horizon Europe programme, but also suggest that potential new partners are proceeding very cautiously. Japan’s €10 million would be a tiny share of the overall programme.
Likewise, Canada has tentatively earmarked a relatively small purse of roughly C$25 million for new international collaborations over the next few years. Australia’s involvement, if it happens, appears likely to be smaller still. The US has shown little interest, and other potential new partners – New Zealand, Brazil, Argentina and South Africa – have yet to tip their hands publicly.
This unusual diplomatic dance began nearly two years ago, when the European Commission suggested it would like to see a big international expansion of Horizon Europe, as a way to work together on global challenges such as climate change, healthcare and artificial intelligence. At present, besides the 28 EU members, 16 other countries in and around Europe are formal members, meaning they contribute some money to a common funding pot so their scientists can compete for Horizon grants alongside EU researchers.
But progress in increasing the membership has been stymied by the commission’s unwillingness so far to propose specific terms, for fear that could upset negotiations with the UK over Brexit and its own budget.
In September, a senior commission official said international negotiations can’t go forward until the draft Horizon legislation is “stable” – which may take until at least next Spring.
Akaishi hopes for “an agreement on a framework for the cooperation” by April – even if only in the form of a memorandum of understanding. “But I’m not so sure about that. It seems that the bureaucratic process [in Brussels] of deciding the guidelines might take some time,” he said. Nevertheless, meetings are scheduled in Brussels and Tokyo in December, and if all goes well Horizon could be on the agenda for a meeting in 2020 between Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and incoming European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.
But first, the commission has to make its terms clear. ”I am very much interested in discussing the possibility to become an associate of the EU’s [Horizon Europe],” Akaishi said. “But the problem is that it seems that the EU has not decided what an associate is.”
Among the unresolved issues are the financial terms. The commission has said it wants a “fair balance” with partners. Roughly speaking, a country’s researchers can get about as much money out of Horizon as their governments contribute to the common pot. In principle, Akaishi said, “I don’t think that’s a very big problem,” given that kind of reciprocal funding is common in international research.
But which parts of the programme are open to non-EU countries is also unclear. Akaishi said Japan wants to join the main part of the programme, funding big collaborative research projects on socially or economically important issues. But there’s also potential interest in aspects, such as researcher travel grants to facilitate long distance R&D collaboration.
Specific topics for collaboration could include climate change, the ethics of artificial intelligence, agriculture, biotechnology for ageing populations, for example, relating to the development of cancer therapies, brain imaging, eliminating plastics and promoting a zero-waste circular economy.
These proposed Japanese moonshots bear similarities to Horizon Europe’s proposed missions, which are also a series of big R&D goals around which it aims to mobilise funding.
These topics are global problems that coincide with Japan’s national R&D plans. It is currently designing a new five-year plan for “moonshot” R&D projects in which the government plans to allocate Yen100 billion (€830 million) as seed money to start funding research on high-profile, big-ambition goals. In July, a panel of experts proposed 25 such moonshots.
They include automating all jobs in agriculture by 2040, eliminating all plastic waste from the earth by 2050, creating artificial hibernation technology that duplicates the metabolic state of naturally hibernating animal which during winter sleep are very resistant to serious injury, in humans, by 2050, or making it possible by 2040 for “travel” by avatar – that is, paying virtual visits to other countries while physically staying at home.
A conference in Tokyo in December is due to debate the suggestions and the government aims to select the winners early next year. The initial budget, Akaishi said, is too small to achieve the goals, but the intention is to deploy other government funds in subsequent years. In the process, the government wants to change the way R&D happens in Japan, to make it more goal-oriented and more international.