Technology, business rub elbows at STS confab

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

The annual Science and Technology in Society Forum, a three-day international gathering of scientists, engineers, university and government officials and corporate heads, kicked off Sunday with discussions on issues ranging from climate change to energy efficiency.

Drawing more than 1,000 participants from 80 countries, the STS Forum, the brainchild of former Finance Minister Koji Omi, who played a key role in formulating a 1995 law on science and technology, began with an address by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on major science and technology issues facing the country.

The prime minister, who is ardently pro-nuclear, avoided contentious domestic political issues related to science and technology policy — including nuclear plant restarts and renewable energy — and instead spoke on fuel cell technology.

“In Jules Verne’s ‘The Mysterious Island’, there is a passage where the character says he believes water will one day be employed as fuel, and that hydrogen and oxygen which constitute it will furnish an inexhaustible source of heat and light,” Abe said.

Verne’s novel, written in 1874, prompted Abe to then ask why fuel cell technology is not widely available today.

“Too many regulations. But those regulations have been abolished and from early next year, hydrogen fuel cell cars will become available. Jules Verne’s dream is coming true in Japan,” he said.

Other Japanese participants, however, noted the importance of finding the right energy balance for commercial electricity generation, one that includes nuclear power while addressing the problem of climate disruption without leading to economic disruption.

Many of the STS participants are also involved in robot technology, and Abe suggested some ways it might be employed.

While there is debate in Japan over how many foreign medical professionals to let into the country to care for the aging and shrinking population, Abe hopes that at least some of the work, as well as other forms of manual labor, will be done by robots.

“Why not use robots to give care to the elderly? Or to do agricultural work or help out in service industries?” he asked.

Behind the scenes, one purpose of this year’s STS Forum is to privately assure the international scientific community that the stem cell scandal involving the Riken Institute’s Haruko Obokata and her colleagues has been dealt with and won’t be repeated. Several senior executives of the leading state-backed research institute were among the participants.

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