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Japan prepares ‘moonshot’ project to solve global problems

The ¥100-billion initiative could focus on challenges such as how to reduce carbon emissions and create a plastic-free society.

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Plastic bottles piled up at a collection facility in Tokyo, Japan

Creating a plastic-free society is one goal that Japan's Moonshot programme might focus on.Credit: Kyodo News via Getty

Japan is launching a moonshot this year, but the target is closer to home. The Japanese government says that it will spend ¥100 billion (US$897 million) on an ambitious research project that seeks to solve some of the country’s biggest challenges. The goals of the project have yet to be decided, but a committee advising the government met for the first time on 29 March in Tokyo.

The project follows the ¥55-billion Impulsing Paradigm Change through Disruptive Technologies Program (ImPACT), which ran for five years and ended last month. ImPACT brought universities and companies together to pursue high-risk, high-impact innovation, but some projects were not ambitious enough, says Yoshiaki Tamura, who helped to manage the initiative for the Bureau of Science, Technology and Innovation in Tokyo. The new project — the Moonshot Research and Development System — is more aspirational, he says.

Tackling rising carbon emissions and creating a plastic-free society were two goals that the advisory committee — comprising scientists, businesspeople and artists — discussed, says Tamura. The government approved the project in February, and has also asked the public for moonshot suggestions, which the government is expected to decide by June, says Akira Tsugita, director of strategic planning and management at the government-run Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST) in Tokyo.

Moon as metaphor

In recent years, the word ‘moonshot’ has become synonymous with large, generously funded projects that have lofty and inspiring goals — projects such as NASA’s Apollo programme, which successfully landed people on the Moon between 1969 and 1972.

Former US president Barack Obama launched a cancer moonshot in 2016 to fund bold research for cancer treatments, committing US$1.8 billion over 7 years.

The Japanese programme has been modelled on other large-scale international projects, such as the European Commission’s upcoming programme Horizon Europe, and the US National Science Foundation (NSF) programme NSF 2026 Idea Machine, which invests in bold research ideas, says Tsugita.

Mission-oriented approaches are the only way to solve problems, such as climate change, that don’t have easy solutions, says policy adviser George Dibb at University College London. But solving them will require multiple approaches. “Some will fail, and some might reach it and have a huge impact,” says Dibb, who has advised the European Commission, the UK government and other global organizations on mission-driven policies. Innovation is inherently and unavoidably uncertain and risky, and Japan must be open to failure, says Dibb.

A 2018 report advising the European Commission on its Horizon Europe programme suggested that, to be effective, missions should be relevant to society, ambitious, cross-disciplinary, measureable and able to be addressed in many different ways.

Next steps

The government is still deciding how to measure the moonshot programme’s success, says Tsugita.

Even if a particular goal is not achieved, projects might still be considered successful if, for instance, they contribute to the emergence of new communities of researchers focused on specific societal problems, he says. “The exercise will mean attaching metrics to things governments maybe haven’t thought of before,” says Dibb.

Japan’s project will run for at least five years, with the possibility of being extended to ten, says Tsugita.

After the programme’s goals have been selected, researchers will be invited to apply for grants from the JST or the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization, another government agency.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-01094-w

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