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Japanese science ministry takes partial blame for tsunami and meltdown

Japan’s ministry of science and education was supposed to be celebrating the 50th anniversary of its first annual White Paper on Science and Technology with the 2011 edition. Instead of a long spread of great achievements by Japanese scientists over the past five decades, however, the document, which was approved by the government yesterday, became the latest mea culpa for the poor handling of last March’s earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident. The document puts the spotlight on the responsibility of the countries’ scientists and engineers.

Yasuhiro Yukimatsu, director of the ministry’s strategic-programmes division and head of the six-person team that put the 260-page document together, says it’s the first time that the ministry’s White Paper has become a work of atonement.

The list of failings is familiar by now: scientists lacked “fundamental knowledge about the mechanism of ocean trench earthquakes” and didn’t predict the possibility of a mega-earthquake. They underestimated the height of the tsunami and produced a hazard map with a large gap between estimated and actual inundation. Risk-communication efforts failed to prepare citizens for the unexpected.

The document also pointed to slow and inconsistent handling of various crucial endeavours after Fukushima nuclear reactors went haywire: establishing and lifting evacuation zones, implementing radiation monitoring, sizing up the effects on human health, decontaminating the environment and food, communicating risk, and the difficult process of decommissioning the reactors.

Headlines of most Japanese newspapers have introduced the document as expressing, on behalf of the Japanese scientific community, “deep regret”.

And the public seems to think they should feel regret, at least if one goes by some startling data on the public perception of scientists presented in the White Paper.  A December 2011 survey by the National Institute of Science and Technology Policy (NISTEP) of 1,000 people found that only 45% thought scientific experts should direct science and technology policy, compared to 79% who thought so in a similar survey from 2009. An April 2011 NISTEP survey asking citizens whether they trusted what scientists said found that only 40.6% did — plummeting from 84.5% in November 2010 (that number recovered to about 65% early this year).

Scientists themselves see problems. A September 2011 survey of scientists and engineers by NISTEP found that only 36% think that research and development (R&D) contributes to finding solutions for social problems.

Is this harshness fair? Sure, scientists could have done better. The threat of a massive quake could have made its way from the scientific literature to the zoning laws and hazard maps. But it is not easy to change such things overnight, especially when those that might be affected by such changes will surely, in resisting them, appeal to the low probability of such events. (Even now, residents are opposing zoning laws made in the wake of last year’s disaster.) And the greater scientific community can hardly be called upon to bear the responsibility for the most egregious errors with regards to the nuclear disaster, such as Tokyo Electric Power Company’s failure to ensure that its generators could withstand a tsunami and the government’s withholding of available information about the path of radiation fallout.

Still, it could be a good opportunity. The White Paper suggests overhauling the R&D system to create more dynamic researchers who think broadly, in terms of both social contribution and interdisciplinary scientific approaches. It also suggests creating mechanisms for making use of R&D and discusses the benefits of having an independent scientific adviser, an argument made in Nature previously, who can make sure the government is informed when, for example, a tsunami triggers a nuclear meltdown. Proposals for the creation of such an office are being debated by the government now.

These could lead in a promising direction and put Japanese scientists in better standing. And the public is counting on them. Even after the disaster and despite the distrust in scientists, White Paper data show that the Japanese have maintained high levels of expectation from science. They trust science, not scientists. That needs to change.


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