07 May 2019   |   News

Japan and the EU want to deepen research ties

The two are exploring joint research in artificial intelligence and their respective ‘moonshot’ programmes. The EU would like Japan to take part in Horizon Europe, but for Japan, more clarity is needed on the terms of associate membership

Takuya Hirai, on the left, and Carlos Moedas. Photo: EC - Audiovisual Service

Japan and the EU are aiming to expand cooperation in science, including collaborating on high-profile ‘moonshot’ projects and the ethics of artificial intelligence.

Fresh from a bilateral summit one week ago, held to review the implementation of the Japan-EU free trade agreement, EU Research commissioner Carlos Moedas met Japan’s Science Minister Takuya Hirai in Brussels, to explore how to deepen research ties.

The presence of Hirai in Brussels signalled Japan is considering whether to join the EU’s upcoming R&D programme, the €94.1 billion Horizon Europe, and also highlighted broader research ambitions in Europe.

Beyond the EU capital, Japan is building bilateral ties with researchers and companies in France and Germany, with a particular focus on artificial intelligence (AI).

The European Commission is planning to offer new and improved entry terms to Horizon Europe, allowing researchers in third countries that become associate members and contribute to the budget, to participate in EU R&D projects under the same preferential conditions as researchers in member states.

Brussels officials suggest that, alongside Canada, Japan is probably at the top of the list of countries the EU would like to become an associate member. The relationship between the two has been deepening following the implementation of the trade deal in February, which will remove 97 per cent of the customs duties on EU exports to Japan. The agreement covers a quarter of the global economy.

While Japan is eager to forge deeper research ties with the EU, officials want to understand exactly what the offer of associate membership entails. Here, the two sides made little headway last week, foreshadowing the challenge for Brussels of securing more international participation in Horizon Europe.

“We are very keen on finding out what association to Horizon Europe [entails]. What is it?” Fumikazu Sato, deputy director general of science, technology and innovation in the Japanese government, told Science|Business.

However, Sato expressed confidence that Japan will be able to work together with the EU on new large-scale ‘moonshot’ projects that are structured around a single objective, noting the Japanese government has laid out plans to spend ¥100 billion (€807 million) on its own moonshot programme, modelled on the ‘missions’ it is proposed to tackle in Horizon Europe.

“We are proposing a moonshot programme. The EU is proposing missions. They are both relevant for each other,” Sato said. “We are very willing to have a European contribution [to our moonshots].”

The Moedas-Hirai meeting was described by Sato as a starting point, with the promise of more discussions to come. In an official statement, the Commission said it expects “cooperation in science, technology and innovation to increase, in areas of mutual interest.”

Under the current arrangement with Brussels, Japan’s Science and Technology Agency pays for its researchers to participate in a number of small, specially-designated EU-led projects. While associate membership will give greater access and a promise of “fair balance” between what a country pays in and what it gets out, the Commission can pick and choose which parts of the programme are involved.

Beyond the broad brush agreement to open up associate status, there are a host of details yet to be decided by the Commission. But currently the EU executive is preoccupied by Brexit and what kind of future relationship it will have with the UK, which is delaying any serious negotiations with foreign partners.

As Brexit grinds on, all EU officials can do is take soundings with countries including Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the US, on their interest in associate status. At the same time, there is a growing concern in some capitals that the EU is not moving fast enough to spell out the terms for potential partners.

To the moon together?

Japan’s moonshot project will run for at least five years, with the possibility of being extended to ten years, Sato said. Specific goals have yet to be decided, but the government could decide two or three targets by end of the summer. Tackling rising carbon emissions and cutting plastic use are two possibilities that a committee of experts, including scientists, people from industry, science fiction writers and artists have discussed.

The moonshots mark a refocusing of Japan’s support for innovation. “We have to change the approach,” Sato said. “The focus is now [to] encourage the development of seeds. We are going to a bottom-up system.”

Japan’s research spending has been static over the past decade and other countries have overtaken it. In response, the government is pursuing more international collaboration in science.

In the past, Japan’s research establishment has been relatively insular, but that has been changing of late. As one small example, the country’s top research institute, Riken Institute, opened an office in Brussels last November.

Then last month the heads of several major German research bodies, including the German Research Foundation, the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, the Leibniz Association and the Helmholtz Association, accompanied the minister of education and research, Anja Karliczek, to Tokyo, to tie up research deals in automated driving, AI and the Internet of Things, and discuss the Germany’s involvement in Japan’s moonshots.

Keeping tabs on AI

Hirai’s visit to Brussels last week was also an opportunity to discuss global oversight of artificial intelligence.

Japan, the current chair of the G20 group of nations, is pushing for the outline of an international system to oversee AI, an industry led by the US and China, and the Japanese government is on a tour of Europe and North America in advance of the next G20 meeting, in Osaka in late June.

Brussels and Tokyo share similar goals on AI, said Shinichi Mizumoto, director for international affairs at the Bureau of Science, Technology and Innovation in the Japanese government. “We propose principles for human-centric AI, which are very similar to guidelines proposed by the Commission,” he said.

In recent years, Europe has emerged as the de facto regulator of the technology sector, exerting influence beyond its borders. It has developed stringent rules for the handling and ownership of data and is now developing ethical standards in AI and genetic engineering.

Japan is also coordinating with the US on new AI regulatory supervision. “We have not discussed our proposals point by point but we share some fundamental ideas,” Mizumoto said.

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