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Frontiers of Science Symposium

FoS Alumni Messages No.6

“Two Reasons for FoS Charm”

Tomoyuki Higuchi
Executive Director, Research Organization of Information and Systems
Director-General, The Institute of Statistical Mathematics
Professor, Department of Statistical Modeling, SOKENDAI (The Graduate University for Advanced Studies)

Past Participations in FoS:
1st JGFoS (Speaker) 
3rd JGFoS (PGM)
4th JGFoS (PGM)


I enjoyed my participation in the FoS program, which for me has been JGFoS symposiums. I attended the 1st JGFoS symposium ten years ago as a speaker, and later, the 3rd and 4th as a Planning Group Member (PGM).

Most researchers have become accustomed to holding discussions in a virtual setting. In this age when people can communicate without actually meeting, there are some researchers who find it difficult to understand the value of symposiums held in the FoS format in which the participants lodge together for few days while engaging in a cross-disciplinary exchange. In fact, some participants of the JGFoS symposiums have expressed such doubts. These days when so many conferences are held to present neatly prepared papers on research results, I must say that FoS symposiums, being hand-crafted and boldly implemented, are certainly a bit novel.

That said, the pliant setting of the FoS program is appealing to me for two reasons. As my specialty is statistics and machine learning (artificial intelligence), I have regular opportunities to talk with people in various application domains. As my work is both inter- and cross-disciplinary, I thoroughly enjoy exchanging views with people of other fields. What’s need to carry out an exchange across disciplines smoothly is an ability to communicate broadly, including possessing a wide range of interests, an ability to listen carefully to what others say and to convey one’s own ideas to them clearly. Researchers specializing in statistics must possess this ability. Consequently, I have been from the beginning a person predisposed to the FoS program.

I remember the time when I and members of the JSPS secretariat staffs got into a spat with an academic over the FoS format, about which he was skeptical. During that conversation, I emphasized that the main aim of the FoS program is to foster scientists who have an eye for discerning promising fields. The majority of researchers become engaged in research institution management in the later stages of their careers, though some continue to investigate and pioneer new research fields until they retire. Those who will hold senior positions in research institutions must be able to identify and select proposals with real potential from numerous applications and even be able to evaluate projects in fields different from their own. Furthermore, they must be able to plan and carry out new cross-institutional programs. Of very useful application in doing this are broad communication skills nurtured through participation in the FoS program.

Another reason for my affinity with the FoS program is the great enjoyment I derive from drinking parties. In self-defense, it is not the alcohol per se that I like about these parties. I am fond of the spirited debates about research and concepts that the alcohol spawns and accelerates. When interviewing new applicants for my lab, I ask them about their willingness to join the lab’s drinking parties. This proclivity for drinking may be shared throughout the FoS program (then again, maybe only the JGFoS program). Whenever a JGFoS symposium is hosted by Germany, the alcohol beverages served are copious; when held in Japan, however, not enough alcohol is available to ignite a lively debate in the evenings due budget limitations and spending restrictions. These are too high to hurdle, even though the JSPS staff sympathize with our plight.

As a last resort at the 4th JGFoS symposium held in Japan, the German Embassy volunteered to serve the participants alcohol on the condition that the party be held at the Official Residence of the Ambassador. This very nice condition was not without a down side: The symposium venue was Shonan Village in Kanagawa Prefecture, while the Embassy was located some 100 kilometers away in the Azabu area of Tokyo. Incidentally, this was near my workplace, The Institute of Statistical Mathematics (relocated to Tachikawa in 2009). After all, we took two buses from Shonan Village to the Official Residence. After enjoying a great evening of talking, eating and drinking, we made our way back to Shonan. Needless to say, the time spent making the roundtrip was quite long. So, an afterthought came to mind: If only the symposium had been held at my lab we could have slipped into the Embassy next door for a party every night. The saying “Breeding resentment, sake should be feared” offers a word of wisdom. Well, I must apologize to the reader for telling such a trivial story.

These days, people’s expectations in the future revolve around the development of innovative technologies, supported by top-down competitive funding with clearly defined objectives. For such projects to succeed, it is necessary to select the best applications and to foster and secure capable people to carrying them out. For that purpose, increasingly large budgets are being established to introduce project director (PD) and project manager (PM) systems.

The question is whether Japan has programs in place for systemically and consistently fostering people to fill such positions. Unfortunately, I am afraid it has only very few. In contrast, the FoS program has been a clear pioneer in this regard: It has been successful in fostering many future project directors and managers and people who will assume positions of responsibility in university management. In the future as well, young researchers with finely tuned specializations, wide cross-disciplinary knowledge, and diverse value systems will be better prepared via the FoS program to make their way out into the world. I look forward to yet another level of JSPS support in advancing this endeavor.

 


Get-together with my PGM colleagues after the 3rd JGFoS in Heidelberg, Germany.

Group photo at the Shonan Village Center. Dr. Higuchi at right in fourth row.