Saturday, November 12, 2016

Science Agora 2016

So this is really why I was in Japan: I was invited to the 2016 Science Agora and the Japan Science and Technology Agency's (JST) 20th anniversary forum; in both programs, I was a member of panels composed of scientists who were tasked on discussing how science can be more relatable to society. My attendance to these two events were made possible by Dr Bruce Tolentino, IRRI's Deputy Director General for Communications and Partnerships. I am deeply grateful to him because he nominated me to attend when JST asked if IRRI could send a young female scientist who could communicate the relevance of her research to society. I am also very thankful to the JST for extending the invitation to me after Bruce's nomination... and to Ms Natsuko Kawazoe (of JST's Centre for Science Communication) for all her efforts in making sure that all of us, invited panelists and speakers, were prepared for our topics. She also organised the logistics for us. 

So, the previous posts were really the side trips. Now for the real deal...
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"Agora" means meeting place or centre of a particular activity. In this case, it was apt that the meeting place of scientists from different countries to talk science with non-scientists was the Miraikan, Japan's National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. This was Science Agora 2016, just the biggest science communications event in Japan. The talks this year revolved around the theme "Let's build a society harmonised with science", as the JST envisions that the society of the future will have science as one of its major building blocks.

I was a commentator in the keynote session entitled "What can STI contribute to the global issues today such as SDGs we have to cope with?" In the commentating section, I was joined by fellow young researchers Drs Nuwong Chollacoop (the head of the Renewable Energy Laboratory at the National Metal and Materials Technology Centre in Thailand) and Shoji Komai (Associate Professor at Nara Institute of Science and Technology in Japan).


The presenters and the moderator, who complete the panelists onstage, have very impressive backgrounds. Professor Satoru Ohtake, the moderator, was Senior Director of JST before moving on into the Cabinet Office's Economic and Social Research Institute. Professor Massimiano Bucchi is from the University of Trento (Italy) where he studies science and technology in society. Dr Rush Holt used to be a member of the US House of Representatives and is now the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Mr Michael Ellis is the science communications manager at the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement. Professor Dave Cope also worked in government, serving the UK Parliament as Director of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. Professor Tateo Arimoto has served in various policy-making capacities in the Japanese government, even representing Japan in UN meetings.

What was I doing there?!? How do I look intelligent with these people onstage? Okay, this was definitely not the right place to zone out in the middle of the discussion.

The hardest part with being in front of the cameras and the audience while the panel discussion was happening was I couldn't take notes the way I do in class (which means writing everything down). Because of my blooper just before the panel discussion started, I couldn't even get to my pen and notebook. I have to be completely present at discussion and do things on the fly, no notes. Brain and heart, don't fail me now, I thought. I'm so glad they didn't. It really helped that the discussion was a topic that I am quite enthusiastic about... and with the panelists, it was super easy to get sucked into the discussion.

So, what can science, technology, and innovation do to help society?

Prof Bucchi's presentation was interesting because he showed how non-scientists perceived how science could contribute... and it was refreshing to see that they believe that culture actually benefits from scientific advances. Biology and physics play a big role, the non-scientists believe. But many of them felt that Math didn't so much; but they probably forgot the Math is behind all the theories that led to these scientific improvements.

And then there's Prof Arimoto's talk. He showed photos of Tokyo from today and from 50 years back. I couldn't believe it... Tokyo was so polluted back in the day! The seas were dirty, the air was smoggy, and it looked like it was in the post-Apocalyptic era. But today, Tokyo's sky is so clear! It's almost unbelievable that such a large metropolis has very clean air... but I've been there to actually see the skyline for myself so I can believe it. And Tokyo Bay is picturesque. It doesn't look dirty at all.


This cleanliness that Tokyo inhabitants and visitors are enjoying now is a product of Japan's highly innovative science and technology sector. I really wish to see Manila and the rest of the Philippines looking like this.

The rest of the discussion was about the SDGs, of course. And then it was time for the commentators to talk. The three of us were keen on understanding the links between the STIs and culture. After all, all innovations borne out of scientific developments will eventually be used by society... which means that these have to be culturally acceptable and sensitive to the socioeconomic context of the people. For instance, rice varieties must be developed with the end-users in mind... because there is no one-size-fits-all in terms of rice quality. People have different preferences. This struck a chord among the panelists; they were all nodding their heads in agreement and they picked up on the line of thought. Another striking idea was on considering the emotions of the users of the technologies... to me that meant that scientists should not forget the humanity of the people. It's a foreign concept to me until I attended the creativity sessions of Science Agora. Oh boy... they were in a position to ponder on what makes humans distinct from humanoids.

What?!? Defining humans because robots are becoming more and more human?

That stopped me on my tracks. It was a concept that I have difficulty wrapping my head around. In fact, I had chills thinking about how far the tech discussions have gone here while I was involved in research that makes sure that people can address one of their basic needs: food security.

Wow.