Scientists begin imagining post-COVID future at Japanese Research Institute RIKEN

Like its counterparts around the world, RIKEN, Japan’s top research institute, is learning to refocus its efforts on the coronavirus emergency. Scientists from many fields – not just the infectious disease experts – are starting to ponder the imponderable: how will the world look after the emergency passes?

“Today, when we look at the challenge of coronavirus, we have to find a way to rebuild,” says Yuko Harayama, RIKEN’s director for international affairs, communication and diversity.

 “After the pandemic, we have to foresee a future where humans are not dominating everything; humans are just one part of nature. We should not be arrogant to say we’ll dominate coronavirus. We’ll be aiming to survive, under controlled conditions.”

Harayama is, herself, a specialist in thinking about the future. As an executive member of the government’s Council for Science, Technology and Innovation, from 2014 to 2018, she was a chief proponent of the country’s “Society 5.0” thinking, an invitation to design a future where the cyber and physical worlds are seamlessly connected. It is an effort to create a new social contract and economic model by adopting the technological innovations of the “fourth industrial revolution”, with humans “at the centre of this process”.

The question that COVID-19 poses: is the plan now redundant? Harayama, who joined the country’s highest-ranked scientific institute on April 1, told Science|Business that she expects the crisis will greatly disrupt science collaboration in the short term, but make international cooperation even more important in the long term. And she thinks the crisis will give everyone the time to reflect on what a better future looks like.

In Europe, COVID-19 has placed a spotlight on the usefulness of fundamental, long-shot research during a global crisis.

The scrutiny follows a very public resignation memo fired off by the head of the European Research Council, the EU’s premier science funder, last month. The scientist in question, Mauro Ferrari, accused the funder – and the EU in general – of lacking purpose and urgency in its research response to the emergency.

It hasn’t been like that in Japan, says Harayama. “For the moment we don’t have any specific pressure coming from politicians, but they are saying we put a lot of money into [basic sciences], and you should help solve immediate problems [of COVID-19],” she says.

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