The Moonshots are taking off

Japan’s new Moonshot program for science, technology and innovation promotes transformative innovation and international collaboration on AI, Robotics, Environment, Sustainable food and Health.  The European Union and Japan have signed a...

Japan’s new Moonshot program for science, technology and innovation promotes transformative innovation and international collaboration on AI, Robotics, Environment, Sustainable food and Health.  The European Union and Japan have signed a Letter of Intent for collaboration between Horizon Europe and the Moonshots.

The Japanese Moonshot Programme was proposed by the Council for Science, Technology and Innovation (CSTI) at the Cabinet Office in 2019 with the aim of promoting transformative innovation and advancing R&D beyond existing technologies for addressing societal challenges and future society, for instance addressing the aging and declining population and global warming. Six Moonshot goals were initially selected followed by an additional seventh in the wake of the current pandemic (see below list of the Moonshot Goals). Program directors were appointed in early 2020, and through open calls, the process of selecting project managers is underway through the respective funding agencies and ministries.

This involves intense collaboration across the Japanese government.  The agencies responsible funding are Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST), The New Energy, Technology and Industry Development Organization (NEDO), and The Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development (AMED).  These are aided by various ministries such as Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare (MHLW), and Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF).

The framework for the program was jointly developed by the Cabinet Office (CAO) and the involved ministries. The program has an initial budget of JPY 100 billion for the first five years, starting from April 2020. JST under MEXT is the funding agency responsible for Moonshot goals related to cyber-physical interface and AI (goals 1,2,3 and 6). Through open calls, project managers have now been selected, and JST has announced to fund 19 final projects out of 127 applicants.     

NEDO is responsible for funding allocation related to Moonshot goal 4 (global environment), and 13 projects have been selected for funding, involving (1) Technologies to recover greenhouse gases (“GHGs”) and convert them into valuable materials, (2) Technologies to recover nitrogen compounds and convert them into harmless or useful materials, and (3) Technologies to develop marine biodegradable plastics with controllable rate of decay. With respect to developing a sustainable global food supply (goal 5), NARO has selected to fund 10 projects out of 37.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a new Moonshot goal targeting how to adapt to similar challenges in the future has been added. AMED, which is under the MHLW, MEXT and METI, is currently reviewing projects for this Moonshot on the development of a sustainable care system for major diseases (goal 7).

An ambition in the Moonshot program is to involve young and talented researchers, engineers and innovators from Japan, and to collaborate internationally. For international collaborations, two main types of modalities for agreements are proposed. In the case where the international party has its’ own funding (co-funding type), a relatively simple Memorandum of Cooperation (MoC) is sufficient, and in the case where the international part seeks Japanese funding for its participation, a more formal research agreement will be necessary.

Concerning collaboration with the EU, a letter of intent for collaboration between the JP Moonshots and the EU Missions in Horizon Europe has been signed, for jointly addressing societal challenges both regions are facing. Due to the delayed start of Horizon Europe, the EU-JP collaboration will initially be made through involvement of projects in the current EU Framework Programme, Horizon 2020.

In order to solve diverse global challenges through research and innovation, it is essential to not only connect Japan and the EU, but also develop this relationship so that it impacts innovation on a global scale. Although Japan’s Moonshot program is still in its initial phase, the projects in its portfolio are diverse, and expected to increase the opportunities for international collaboration for universities, research institutes and start-ups. For a future step in the Japanese Moonshot ambitions, a Millennia call was launched to engage young researchers in international teams for proposing a next generation of Moonshots. The thinking and proposals from the younger generation will be most interesting to follow, and hopefully widen the horizon for shaping the future society even further.

Noriko Ogawa, Shiori Schules, Michael Jacob