On the evening of November 14th we had an evening of scientific discussion event at the office of SAFECAST in Shibuya, Tokyo. This was the first time we have run an event in Japanese only and the first time to address an area of scientific discipline.
We are living in an age of big environmental problems and energy issues that need to be tackled on a global basis. The goal of the session was to determine what citizens can do to obtain reliable scientific information and make appropriate decisions after the Fukushima disaster 5 years ago. Fifteen participants had a heated discussion which lasted for 2 hours and delved into issues such as “information” and “accountability/responsibility” which underlie Japanese society and philosophy.
The first speaker, Mr. Shigeyuki Koide, Chairperson of the Japan Association of Science & Technology Journalists, stated that the Fukushima accident led to a “confusion in society.” Some considered it the biggest crisis ever to happen in human history, causing people to fear exposure to radiation and oppose nuclear policy. He added that the failure of communication was caused by the lack of an information philosophy by the government. In particular, the government lacked clarity about “WHY, to WHOM, and WHAT to communicate” and therefore failed to provide information to the people. As a result, multiple “scientific explanations” emerged, including illogical unscientific ideas. People across the world came to believe that Fukushima was contaminated and at risk. They expressed their prejudice towards Fukushima. In fact the psychological damage to the local people was higher than the damage caused by radiation.
Next, Mr. Takeshi Shimizu, working for BBC, explained how the UK responded to the Fukushima accident. He was in the UK when the earthquake happened. He was struck by the Japanese government’s lack of public communication. To fill this information gap, he translated Twitter messages by a Tokyo University Professor and used free journalist’s information for his BBC broadcast content. Meanwhile, Sir John Beddington, Chief Science Advisor to the UK government, announced that the accident at Fukushima Reactor Number 1 was a hydrogen explosion unlike that of Chernobyl, so radiation would not spread. He explained that there was no urgent need for foreigners to leave Japan. This was possible thanks to the UK government having already experienced a similar ordeal with the BSE problem (Mad Cow Disease). A Science Advisory system had been established in 1968 which enabled the advisor to each ministry to cooperate and build a firm network among science advisors. By contrast, since there were no science advisors in the Japanese government and no collaboration between ministries, no one could make a formal announcement grounded in scientific facts. The Japanese need to think about how we can learn from this huge failure.
The last speaker was Mr. Azby Brown, from the Future Design Institute of Kanazawa Institute of Technology and SAFECAST researcher. In his talk, he explained the origin and role of SAFECAST. Three engineers in LA, Boston, and Tokyo launched SAFECAST in order to provide reliable data after the Fukushima accident. They developed a device that measures the level of radiation and makes this information publically available. SAFECAST, a volunteer-led organization, has since become an important public science innovator which inspires people all around the world. It has developed a map showing radiation measurements in 18 million locations worldwide. They collect data in order to preserve the people’s “right” to obtain information, to make decisions on environmental issues, and to maintain transparency in solving problems.
Fukushima is a lesson for the Japanese. We strongly believe that failure can help people succeed in the future. Along with open data initiatives, it is also necessary to support leadership in the Japanese science field. Japan needs to establish a science advisory system that offers open, transparent, and reliable information.
To view the full summary of the event, please check the event page.
On the 14th November the Japanese Fellows Network had their first event on science communication, which mainly centred on the issues surrounding the Fukushima disaster.