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Working to broaden EU-Japan cooperation in research

by Chiho Iuchi

Staff Writer

I was surprised Japanese children knew the European Union, said Maria Cristina Russo, director for international cooperation in the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, who joined an event on robots held on April 13 in Tokyo during her recent visit to Japan.

The event was organized for children as part of the Habataki Project by Shintakujyuku in collaboration with the EU Delegation in Japan to choose a name for a robot that symbolizes EU-Japan cooperation in science, research and innovation.

About 30 elementary school students came to the venue at the Tokyo Skytree Town Campus of the Chiba Institute of Technology.

Last November, at the EU-Japan Summit in Tokyo, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe underlined the strategic importance of EU-Japan cooperation in science and technology.

Since the EU-Japan Science and Technology agreement came into force in March 2011, bilateral activities have increased in this field. While welcoming the significant progress achieved together over the past two years, the leaders called for further efforts to unlock the potential of Japan-EU science and technology cooperation and to promote further collaboration as partners for research and innovation.

“The main purpose of my visit was to fulfill the commitment of the former summit and to get together to see what could be done between the EU and Japan in view of the upcoming summit in Brussels in May,” said Russo during a recent interview with The Japan Times. Russo and Makoto Katsura, ambassador for science and technology cooperation of the Foreign Ministry, co-chaired a round-table meeting on EU-Japan science and technology cooperation on April 15 in Tokyo, an event attended by relevant Japanese officials from several ministries and their EU counterparts.

Since 1981, the EU has developed programs to support researchers by funding first-class experts from industry and academia. Following the 7th Framework Program for Research (FP7), a €80 billion package for a new research and innovation funding program named Horizon 2020 was launched this year.

During the meeting, participants reaffirmed the successful outcomes of the collaborative activities conducted under the FP7. They also exchanged views for exploring more effective and efficient mechanisms to enhance future research cooperation in the context of Horizon 2020 and the new Japanese “Comprehensive STI Strategy” from the perspectives of the their frontlines of research and development.

Among the potential topics for focused cooperation are information and communications technology, especially cybersecurity; substitution of rare earths; ocean exploitation; intelligent transport systems; climate change modeling; aeronautics; energy; and aging population issues.

“It was the first meeting in which we discussed the situation, and we presented two questions,” Russo said.

“One of the questions is to find a sector of interest for financing the EU-Japan cooperation in the fields of science and technology,” she said. “There is also a question of giving certain predictability (of support) to Japanese scientists who want to participate in the EU research program.”

Researchers and companies from Japan can participate in the research consortia under Horizon 2020, which is the most open research program in the world. However, participants from non-EU industrialized countries, including Japan, the U.S., Australia, South Korea, Singapore, Mexico and the BRICs economies, will need cofunding for their own research activities to get access to the multilateral research projects.

The EU and Japan have cofunded coordinated projects to which researchers of both sides could apply. There were successful outcomes of Japan’s collaborative projects in the framework of the FP7. Japan’s participation, however, remains a modest 108 projects, compared with Russia’s 495, the United States’ 476 and China’s 321.

It has been suggested by EU officials that it would be good if the Japanese government could establish a funding system to support Japanese researchers and encourage them to further participate in the Horizon 2020 program.

“This is an internal decision for the Japanese government,” Russo said. “My role is not to interfere with the way Japan organizes itself,” she said adding that she introduced some examples of how other countries, which have benefited from the EU program, organize funding systems for their researchers.

Another important mission for Russo was to attend the seminar titled “Horizon 2020 — New opportunities for Japanese researchers to join international projects,” held on April 14 at the EU Delegation in Tokyo.

The seminar attracted over 200 participants from industry, universities and research institutes, as well as funding agencies, such as the Japan Science and Technology Agency.

“There were questions from participants on a research financing system,” Russo said. But what impressed her were the testimonials from Japanese partners that had participated in previous EU programs, especially highlighting the benefit of the multilateral program, which they indicated gave them much more than what they paid to participate.

These joint projects have a great potential to advance innovation for both Japanese and European companies and research entities, as they are able to tap a much wider range of international ideas, which could lead to international standardization.

“Today, it is much more important to be able to combine ideas from different sources. Excellence in science today is based in international cooperation,” Russo said. “And for Japan, this is an important element of a broader discussion, which is related to strengthening cooperation between the EU and Japan.”

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