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HOME  >  Research Grant Program  >  2013  >  Interview with Professor Toshio Kuwako, Chair of the Toyota Foundation Research Grant Program Selection Committee "Aiming to Build a Better Future"

Research Grant Program 2013

Interview with Professor Toshio Kuwako, Chair of the Toyota Foundation Research Grant Program Selection Committee "Aiming to Build a Better Future"

Interviewer: Oba Ryuta, Program Officer of the Toyota Foundation

Starting in 2011, the Toyota Foundation began to solicit proposals for joint research projects in line with the general theme “Exploring Knowledge to Build a Better Future,” under the two frameworks of (A1) “Research that Aims to Explore New Social Values” and (A2) “Research that Addresses Social Issues.”

The choice of these two frameworks reflects our strong feeling that today, as the world confronts a historic paradigm shift, there is a need not only for practical research that aims to address the issues that have already come to the surface (A2), but also for research that aims to fundamentally rethink the systems and structures that shape contemporary society and the underlying values that are the basis for our way of life and culture (A1).

In other words, there is a need for research that is practical and responsive, as well as research that addresses long-term issues on a global scale and across generations by examining the current structure of society and the way people live, which form the basis for framing and thinking about those issues. Both approaches are indispensable to the task of “Exploring Knowledge to Build a Better Future.”

Looking back two years to when we first divided our program’s theme into those two frameworks, rather than the single theme we had previously used, it must be admitted that the distinction between them was not always clear. We also recognize that we failed to provide adequate explanation of the program objectives to applicants.

In response, we would like in this issue to share with readers the approaches and mindsets the Toyota Foundation Research Grant Program is looking for in project proposals. This is a theme that we believe goes beyond the interests of those now receiving a grant or planning to submit a proposal to include society as a whole.

For the 2013 program, which marks the third year under the new frameworks, we interviewed Dr. Toshio Kuwako, the chair of the Research Grant Program Selection Committee, to learn more about the theme of exploring new social values, in particular, and to gain a better understanding of what is needed to submit a proposal and carry out research projects.

Looking back on the two years you have chaired the Research Grant Program Selection Committee, what are your impressions?


Dr. Kuwako: I would say, first of all, that this experience has made me aware of the need to distinguish clearly between the two different frameworks of the grant program.

Today, as we stand at a major turning point, it is important to understand contemporary problems in light of the evolving trends that stretch from the past into the future, and then to discern in a principled manner the sort of fundamental thinking that will be necessary for us to deal with the difficult issues that society will confront.

This is the understanding that underlies the creation of the A1 framework of “Research that Aims to Explore New Social Values.” It is possible to carry out this kind of research from a very abstract viewpoint, but I hope that the researchers will maintain a firm grasp on the reality of our changing times as they seek to clarify the sort of values that we truly need to pursue.

At the same time, though, there are problems occurring right in front of our eyes that need to be addressed now. We cannot afford to wait for the results of more abstract, theoretical research. This is the reason that the Toyota Foundation also offer the A2 framework of “Research that Addresses Social Issues.” My view with regard to the two frameworks is that it is not an “either-or” relationship. Rather, both are indispensable characteristics of the grant program of the Toyota Foundation.

Could you explain the concept of “values” in a bit more detail?

Dr. Kuwako: The term “values” as we understand it comes down to what people are seeking or should be seeking. Aristotle believed that people’s desires drive the actions they pursue. In other words, human beings can desire things that have not yet come into existence. It is important for people to not only look at the surface reality but also to have a clear view of what is truly worthy of desire. And, in his opinion, the ultimate human desire is “happiness.”

In terms of our program, more concretely speaking, “exploring new values” concerns issues such as disputes over who has a right to certain natural resources around the globe or how to divide up those resources; or the question, conversely, of how to shoulder the risks that arise with the development and use of such resources, which is to say, the question of how to deal with the “negative legacy” of our modern civilization. These issues should be dealt with through an approach that transcends individual standpoints and generations. Such tasks involve allocating the bounty that the Earth has brought to humanity and also sharing the burden arising from the risks that human beings have brought to the planet and to themselves, so in this sense it all comes down to a question of justice. In this sense, I think there is a need for research that seeks in a principled way to come up with methods and ideas for allocation that is “just.” This requires research and activities that can call into question existing values and seek to discover new ones.

My own research at present involves theoretical and practical research regarding “social consensus building.” The concept of consensus building is the construction of a process whereby a consensus on a particular topic is reached through the facilitator carefully listening to the views of other participants, who are afforded equal opportunities to express themselves. Regardless of a person’s standpoint, or whether they are an adult or a junior high school student, for example, it is important to pay attention when they have a useful idea to contribute.

In short, a facilitator needs to have a “sense of justice.” This is one example of a “value” in the realm of consensus building.

You seem to be saying that in the case of “Research that Aims to Explore New Social Values” it is important to adopt a broad, medium- to long-term perspective. More specifically, what sort of things should researchers interested in this grant bear in mind?

Dr. Kuwako: What is important, first of all, is the timeframe. That is to say, the research perspective needs to encompass not only the past and present but be oriented toward what the future may be like in 40, 50, or even 100 years’ time. Considering the future, however, is not about discussing matters that extend beyond our imaginative powers. My own image of what the future might be like extends as far as, let’s say, 40 years or so. So, if those in their twenties looked that far into the future, it would correspond to the period when they will be in their sixties—and the structure of society itself would have changed greatly in that interval. In the case of Japan, the country is headed toward a major decline in population. This will place a burden on the pension system. There is also the possibility that today’s nuclear reactors in Japan will be in the process of being decommissioned by then. Maintaining the nation’s infrastructure will also be a major challenge. It is important for us to consider how we might solve these sorts of problems that are likely to get bigger as time passes. Even though the focus is on the future, these are problems connected to our present situation. So we need to use our imaginations to picture how the present will steadily evolve toward the future.

The next important thing to bear in mind is the key phrase: expressing new value. We can point to universal keywords that human beings have long valued, like “justice” or “happiness,” but our program is looking for research that bears in mind essential questions, such as: “What exactly is happiness for humanity?” or “What sort of justice needs to be brought about in society?” In today’s society it is also important to clarify what sort of thinking is necessary in order to make these things a reality in the future.

Another important point is to approach things from a new angle, using new methods. In particular, in a case where a researcher is conducting a case study of a concrete issue, he or she might be asked if the issue being studied is just an isolated example or if it has some applicability to other issues or fields of study. This means that even if a researcher is looking at a concrete issue, it is necessary to adopt an outlook and methods that are linked to a universal perspective and general theory. And it is important to effectively draw connections between research focusing on particular cases to the construction of a framework for universal theory.

Could you offer some concrete examples of how projects you have been involved in up to now have been linked to the exploration of new values?

Dr. Kuwako: One example is the project I am now heading that aims to develop the technologies and theories needed to bring about a comprehensive revival of the “local commons.”  The project is centered on Sado Island, off the coast of Niigata Prefecture, and works with community members, the local government, and the fisheries cooperative to revive Lake Kamo.

More specifically, we have set up a research center related to reviving aquatic life in Lake Kamo, and it is now carrying out a variety of studies and activities. At the same time, we are theoretically considering how the revitalization of the lake can be linked to broader initiatives to ensure biodiversity and deal with the issue of carbon emissions and climate change. On top of this, there is the task of pondering the aspects of modern civilization and society that have led to the loss of biodiversity and global warming, and seeking to build the methodology and philosophy needed to break free from that status quo.

This is a project that involves a number of keywords; one of them is the concept of “commons.” This is the question of how people can use shared resources, such as how to manage the resources in and around a lake. Long ago the issue of the commons was something limited to each particular community, whereas now it is a problem on a global scale. More directly stated, this concerns the task of how to manage, from a global perspective, the “nature” that is the shared asset and common resource of all living creatures on the planet. The conventional approaches and ways of thinking that came into existence in the modern era are no longer sufficient to deal with this task. We need to search for ways to achieve ways of governance that have a local-global balance, and also present ways of thinking and methodologies.

What sort of outcomes are you looking for from future projects?

Dr. Kuwako: First of all, I hope that the applicants have a clear awareness that they are conducting a “project.” This is the first key premise. When it comes to exploring new values, it is essential not only to have a objective but also to possess a clear awareness of how long it will take to achieve it and what needs to be done. Of course, a project might succeed or fail. But even if the project does not go as planned, in the report the researchers can explain the reasons for the lack of success. This managing of the process for a project and then presenting a report are important.

The project results could be presented in the form of an academic paper (or book-length publication) or a video, for example, but whatever the case may be these results need to make some sort of positive contribution to the shape of society. I also think it is important to convey those results to the wider world. I would also like to see the younger project members taken on board as well as the use of various media and informational tools so that the results can reach as many people as possible around the world.

As you say, it would be unfortunate if the results of a grant research project were limited to the narrow confines of the world of research. I imagine it will be increasingly important for researchers to present their results to the outside world and periodically convey information on the process of research.

Dr. Kuwako: The project centered on Lake Kamo involves refining methods for “setting apart your home place .” The first step in seeking to resolve the issues facing a community is to look around the community—together with local residents, government officials, and children as well—to become better aware of the strengths of the local area and the challenges it faces.

That idea of setting apart your home place  comes down to becoming better aware of the structure of values for a particular place, or what might be described in English as “finding a home place.” This is one method for building a consensus in order to improve the community by solving its problems. Recently, the emphasis has been placed not only on “finding” but also making improvements to a community to set it apart, in other words, “finding and adorning a home place.” My impression is that we will see practical applications of this sort of new approach and that it will be widely diffused among societies overseas as well.

We have seen in recent years, both in Japan and overseas, an increase in the amount of discussion between community members and business people. It is important to use those interactive moments as an opportunity to convey information. In the case of our Lake Kamo project, for instance, the forum for interaction between government officials and children became an opportunity for us to present the results of our research. This type of situation allows for a diverse range of viewpoints to be expressed and leads, in turn, to an enhancement in the content of a project. It is important for a project to reflect this lively outlook.

Do you have any message you would like to convey to those who are submitting proposals to the Toyota Foundation Research Grant Program?

Dr. Kuwako: Since our grant program has two distinctive frameworks, my hope is that applicants will understand the objectives of both frameworks and chose the option that will allow them to make the best contribution.

For a project proposal the content of research is of course important, but it is also vital for thought to be given to the composition of the research team for the project, in terms of what motivations brought them together and what sort of results can be generated by them working together as a true team, rather than just a random collection of individuals. Along with that issue of team composition, people submitting a proposal should also make clear the objectives of their project. I would hope that before submitting a proposal the team members come to a consensus on the project’s objectives.

Proposals can be submitted to the Toyota Foundation Research Grant Program from April 1 to May 7, 2013. Please visit the Toyota Foundation website for more information on the grant program and the submission requirements.

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