It has been a long time since I last posted. One of the main reasons for this is that as soon as I returned to Scotland, I immediately had to start preparing for a week-long intensive course on social responsibility with engineers, which has been extremely rewarding but very hard going for me, let alone the students! Nonetheless, it is on the topic of students that I want to pick up for this post, for during my six weeks in Japan I was fortunate enough to meet some hugely motivated and engaged students and educators.
Alongside understanding the situation in Fukushima and getting to grips with offshore CCS in Tomakomai, the third plank of my summer research was to find out more about how Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology is raising the next generation of civil servants, industrial operators, researchers and citizens. Before arriving, I had been hugely impressed with what I had read and seen of the Edo-mae Education for Sustainable Development programme headed up by Prof Kawabe and her colleagues – which sought to use the surrounding environs of Tokyo Bay to educate students and wider society on marine environmental issues, and latterly shifted its focus to Iwaki to address questions of marine radioactive contamination.
In my final week at Kaiyodai I interviewed a few of the students and had good conversations with many more, and what was clear in every case was that the students could see a clear link between what they were studying and what they wanted to do with their careers. I met people who wanted to gain the skills to help promote their region of origin, people who had grown up by the sea and just wanted to do something that let them live and work on the coast, and even people whose dream it was to present a TV programme on fish and the sea! The close linkage between staff’s own specialisations and students’ academic interests meant that most of the students were hugely engaged with their final year dissertation topics, often working as part of a larger research team in ‘kenkyuushitsu’ – similar to the ‘labs’ we have in physical science where everyone works under the direction of a faculty member. A strange concept for a social scientist, but certainly of value when it comes to taking an integrated approach to complex environmental problems.
Japan’s national Marine Day also happened to fall during the time I was on campus, so I was able to take a look at the various activities planned to engage society at large on the research Kaiyodai is doing on different aspects of the sea. It is often easy to sneer at this kind of ‘science communication’ – especially when some of it at least is an activity state-funded universities are obliged to undertake – but the involvement of final-year and graduate students in doing the public-facing aspects of engagement impressed me greatly. There were students doing tours of whale skeletons, explaining marine energy through games, showing us round diesel test engines, and playing about with wave tanks – all valuable experience for these young folk in interacting with society at large on the topic of their research. In the afternoon I attended a science café on whales and dolphins run by top Japanese whale expert Hidehiro Kato, at which soft toys were deployed to explain the differences between various kinds of cetaceans and a facilitated discussion on the moral aspects of the group’s research (whaling, keeping cetaceans in captivity, eating whale meat) helped put across the wider social context in which their work takes place. All too often I see scientists and policy makers trying to ‘cool down’ these issues by claiming they’re ‘just’ doing the science, so it was wonderful to see Prof Kato and his team opening up a discussion with the audience and not shying away from these more controversial angles.
It’s also worth noting that one of Kaiyodai’s most well-known members is the TV talent Sakana-kun, a special associate professor with an encyclopaedic knowledge of fish (‘sakana’ is the Japanese word for ‘fish’, ‘kun’ is a casual way to address a man). A regular feature on Japanese TV, Sakana-kun is instantly recognisable by his yellow-and-blue fish-shaped hat, which he never removes – even when meeting the Emperor! Sakana-kun hats and keyrings are on sale in the campus shops, and if public scientists like this can stimulate young people’s interests in studying a subject at university then all the better (I saw a young woman queuing up at the end of the science café to get Prof Kato to sign a whale book she had).
The ESD programme run out of the Department of Marine Policy and Culture had slowed down a little by the time I arrived at Kaiyodai, but the legacy of it and of the university’s contribution to marine environmental governance more widely is clear to see. Of the fisheries research officers I met in Iwaki, many held degrees from Kaiyodai and were putting the skills they had learned during their studies to direct use monitoring the fish stocks in the marine environment. The Iwaki Science Café meetings – where Kaiyodai staff headed up to Iwaki to facilitate discussions between fishers, practitioners and researchers – helped to explain the complexities of radioactive contamination in the months and years after the nuclear incident. Whilst the cafes are winding down as fish are released and trial fisheries progress, Kaiyodai is keeping up the work of supporting Iwaki and raising awareness of the ongoing situation through events on campus and education on the social aspects of resuming fisheries in class seminars.
This work to build awareness of the ongoing situation in Iwaki is something I’d like to try to contribute to on an international level in whatever way I can. Whilst I can’t do as much as the researchers at TUMSAT, it might be good to attempt to communicate some of the lessons that can be learned from Iwaki fisheries to a wider audience. There is a long way to go yet, but this is work that will start this week when I present some of the initial findings from the summer’s work at the Marine Alliance for Science and Technology Scotland Annual Science Meeting in Edinburgh. Hopefully this can be the start of a bigger project of taking the great example of the relationship between Iwaki and Kaiyodai to a wider international stage, and considering what we in Scotland might be able to learn about how we govern our seas in an uncertain and value-laden future.