Minister Ernkrans deepens relations to Japan

The Swedish Minister for Higher Education and Research, Ms. Matilda Ernkrans, made her first visit to Japan in her role as a Minister during October 5-9. The primary objective was as invited speaker at the Science and Technology in Society forum (STS forum), with a personal invitation from the chairman and founder Koji Omi during his visit to Stockholm in May, where the preparatory European workshop was held. At this forum, policies and priorities for today’s and tomorrow’s science and technology were discussed by researchers, policymakers, business and media leaders. The STS forum is held once a year in Kyoto, with high-level participation from ministers, director generals from funding organizations, university presidents, high-ranked researchers, business leaders, and others.

At the STS forum, the Minister gave a plenary address on the topic of Sustainable Society, followed by a plenary panel discussion together with Mr Charles Holliday (Chairman at Royal Dutch Shell plc), Dr Hiroshi Komiyama (Chairman of Mitsubishi Research Institute Inc. in Japan and former President of Tokyo University), Sir Tim Hunt (Nobel Laureate and researcher at Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology) and the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), H.E. Mr. Isshu Sugawara. During the plenary, Ms. Ernkrans pointed out the importance of gender, science, basic research, and collaboration between academia and industry to address societal challenges and create a sustainable world.

After the plenary, she participated in the Minister’s Roundtable discussion on Sustainable Development Goals and the Japanese Moonshot Programme, organised by the Cabinet Office. During the STS forum, Minister Ernkrans also met with the recently appointed Minister Koichi Hagiuda, Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT), for bilateral discussions on deepened research and innovation collaboration. She also met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as an invitee guest at his breakfast meeting that was held just before the official opening of the STS forum.

Ernkrans thanking Minister Hagiuda after their meeting.

The day before the STS forum was held, and just after Minister Ernkrans arrival to Japan, the 10th EU-Japan Science Policy Forum was held for discussions on strengthened EU-JP research and innovation collaboration, in line with the Strategic Partnership signed between EU and Japan earlier this year. Here, especially the possible synergies between the Japanese Moonshot program and the Missions in the proposed Horizon Europe Framework Programme on Research and Innovation were discussed.

During the EU-JP meeting, the minister addressed the importance of science and technology for solutions to societal challenges and for achieving the SDG goals and highlighted the potential for radically deepened collaboration if Japan were to be associated with Horizon Europe. Minister Ernkrans also pointed out the importance of diversity and gender equality for developing the future and stressed that “you cannot expect to be able to solve all social challenges by only using half of the population”.

Dr. Yano is showing their nano cellulosa plant.

With a strong interest in Climate, Sustainability, and the Environment, the minister took the opportunity to visit Kyoto University’s Research Institute for Sustainable Humanosphere. She there met the institute’s director Prof Watanabe, Prof. Yano’s group working on applications of new nano cellulose bio-based material, i.e. lightweight and strong material for vehicles, and Prof. Cruz’s group on disaster prevention and modeling. At the institute, she was invited to have lunch with female researchers and Ph.D. students, discussing gender and spurring a female network. This group pointed out and was impressed by the all-female delegation from the Ministry that accompanied Ms. Ernkrans.

The female researchers and Ph.D student and Minister Ernkrans.
The Swedish delegation.

More basic research in nano cellulose and bio-based materials was studied during a visit at Prof. Isogai at the graduate school of agricultural and life science, Tokyo University, with practical applications already launched, i.e. novel ink. There, Ms. Ernkrans also visited Prof. Shiomi’s group at the department of Mechanical Engineering with an interesting research in thermoelectric materials for energy harvesting, and nanostructured materials for cooling, which are designed with the help of Artificial Intelligence applied in the research. Both professors have Swedish connections and collaborations, where Prof Isogai i.e. received Marcus Wallenberg’s Award 2015 for his work on nano cellulose, and Prof. Shiomi received his Ph.D. at KTH and is today Tokyo University’s coordinator in the Strategic Partnership with the Stockholm Trio, KTH, KI and SU.

There was also an opportunity for Minister Ernkrans to meet and discuss with Swedish exchange students at Tokyo University about similarities and differences between the country’s universities, and on how to increase attractiveness for foreign students to come to Sweden. 

The Council for Science, Technology, and Innovation at the Cabinet Office is presently working on formulating Japan’s next five-year plan for Science, Technology, and Innovation (STI), and Minister Ernkrans had a fruitful meeting with Executive Member Dr. Ueyama on actions and policy directions for this, with possible input for next year’s Swedish Research and Innovation Bill, Sweden’s next four-year Research Policy Bill.

During the stay in Tokyo, the Swedish Chamber of Commerce in Japan invited Minister Ernkrans to meet with Swedish companies, where they shared experiences on operating in Japan and how conditions could improve, and she also had a meeting with the Governor of Tokyo, Ms. Yuriko Koike. The governor, who is the first female to have the title, and Ms. Ernkrans shared an interest in creating a sustainable society and decreasing the diversity and gender gap existing today. 

Ernkrans with Tokyos governor, Ms. Koike, and Sweden’s Ambassador Pereric Högberg.

Since Matilda Ernkrans, in addition, is the Minister for Space, the delegation visited Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) at Tsukuba Space Center, where she was received by President Yamakawa, who presented JAXA’s activities and their cooperation with the Swedish space center Esrange. The Hayabusa2 mission, with a spacecraft to the asteroid Ryugu for studying it, collecting samples, and returning to earth in late 2020, was presented by the head of mission. Who pointed out the challenges of the mission, not least with making touchdowns on the small, low gravity and rapidly rotating asteroid at a distance further away than the sun, with a precision of 60 cm, and without damaging the sond. 

Minister Ernkrans with President Yamakawa (left) and head of Hayabusa2 mission, Prof. Yoshikawa (right).

Further, at JAXA the delegation got a private tour of a display on earth monitoring satellites, i.e. used for climate and disaster prediction, of launch vehicles, as well as of the Japanese module at the International Space Station, and the operation of the control room for it.

During the visit, Ambassador Pereric Högberg hosted an appreciated dinner at his residence, with invited Japanese and Swedish guests active in Japanese research and innovation, for discussing and understanding the countries’ potentials for enhanced collaborations. Minister Ernkrans ended her program by meeting the whole Embassy staff, where she gave insights into current Swedish politics and thanked the Ambassador, the Office of Science and Innovation and all engaged Embassy staff for making the visit to a success and asked for continued deepened collaboration between our countries.