Research goals should be ‘inspiring, imaginative and credible’ – Japan’s Moonshot Program

The Japanese Government’s Moonshot Program for research was launched in 2019 to promote disruptive innovations and tackle societal challenges.

The idea of ‘missions’ or ‘moonshot’ research projects is gaining popularity as a way to make targeted advances on understanding and addressing pressing global challenges, at the same time as capturing public imagination. One of the first countries to take a ‘moonshot’ approach to designing research funding initiatives was Japan, and in this short blog we take a closer look at how the Moonshot Program has been developed.

The Answers below were provided by a group from the Future Innovation Research Division, Bureau of Science, Technology and Innovation, Japan Cabinet Office; International Affairs, Bureau of Science, Technology and Innovation, Japan Cabinet Office, Japan and Office of Healthcare Policy, Japan Cabinet Secretariat.

First of all, what does ‘moonshot’ research mean to you?

A ‘moonshot’ represents a new challenge and novel approach to science policy being set to the research world. The seven goals currently set for Moonshot research were designed to be ambitious and the hope is that research that comes from a moonshot will have wide-reaching impact and serve the good of society.

The seven Moonshot goals

  • #1: Realization of a society in which human beings can be free from limitations of body, brain, space, and time by 2050.
  • #2: Realization of ultra-early disease prediction and intervention by 2050.
  • #3: Realization of AI robots that autonomously learn, adapt to their environment, evolve in intelligence and act alongside human beings, by 2050.
  • #4: Realization of sustainable resource circulation to recover the global environment by 2050.
  • #5: Creation of the industry that enables sustainable global food supply by exploiting unused biological resources by 2050.
  • #6: Realization of a fault-tolerant universal quantum computer that will revolutionize economy, industry, and security by 2050.
  • #7: Realization of sustainable care systems to overcome major diseases by 2040, for enjoying one’s life with relief and release from health concerns until 100 years old

How is the ‘moonshot’ or mission-oriented approach being implemented in Japan?

Moonshot comes together through collaboration between the Cabinet Office, the Cabinet Secretariat, relevant Ministries and Agencies, Program Directors and Project Managers, and other R&D institutions. Right now, selection for projects is underway, and it’s important to note that moonshot research is not limited to research ideas coming from inside Japan. We hope that Moonshot will be a tool for international collaboration. Guidelines that lay out the selection criteria for evaluation are available to the public on the Moonshot website and in the call for projects (for goals 1-6, see here; for goal 7, see here).      

What motivated this approach? How does it represent a change from the way research was funded and pursued in Japan before?

Moonshot follows on the heels of the recently completed ImPACT research programme. ImPACT was successful in its own right, but Moonshot intends to better focus efforts to produce research that applies to society’s issues, today and in the future. The Program Director and external evaluation process are key in this, by ensuring that an ambitious portfolio of projects that have the potential to spur real progress are in place.

“I want the Program to set goals, in other words, what it aims to achieve, without exception, to match the expression, moonshot, used in its title”.

Council Member Fujii, cited in the notes from the Third Council Meeting.

Who has been involved in efforts to define appropriate missions?

The process to conceive of the Moonshot Program and the seven moonshot goals involved many different people. First, the ‘visionary council’ – consisting of experts from a wide range of fields – was integral in establishing the moonshot goal elements, which are that the goals should be inspiring, imaginative and credible. The public were also able to submit example goals, and about 1,800 submissions were considered. Related Ministries (MEXT, METI, MAFF) and funding agencies (JST, NEDO, NARO,) also weighed in to help determine the scientific credibility of suggested goals. The final six proposed goals were discussed with Japanese and international experts from industry, academia, and government in the December 2019 Moonshot International Symposium. In addition to the above six goals, Moonshot Goal 7 regarding health care was decided by the Headquarters for Healthcare Policy, in July 2020. The Cabinet Secretariat, relevant Ministries (MEXT, METI, MHLW) and funding agencies (AMED) are in charge of the Moonshot Goal 7, which was added in light of the fact that average life expectancy will continue to grow. The population of people aged 100 years or older will reach 300,000 in 2040, and it is necessary to have environments where anyone can enjoy life at any age, without health concerns, by improving the healthy life expectancy. Responding to life-style related diseases and diseases due to aging, which account most of the diseases, has become an issue and initiatives need to be taken.

“The approach must be narrative. Targets should cover items on the global agenda. They must be a blend of challenges in humanities and sciences.

Council Member Yoshimitsu Kobayashi, cited in the notes from the Third Council Meeting.

The ‘visionary council’ includes the artist Marissa Ozaki (also known as sputniko!) and science fiction author Taiyo Fujii, alongside scientists and industry thought-leaders. Why is it important to hear from these kind of voices?

Three elements of moonshot goals are “inspiring”, “imaginative” and “credible”. Government and scientists are experienced in determining what is credible, but may be less creative as it comes to the other elements. In order to create a programme that isn’t just business as usual, it is important to hear from different voices and perspectives. You can read more of the opinions expressed online, alongside the full recommendations from the Visionary Council.

“The exciting parts of the Moonshot targets are very important”.

Council Member Eda, cited in the notes from the Third Council Meeting.

You’ve talked about how the Moonshot Program encourages ‘challenging’ R&D, without a fear of making mistakes. That’s unusual for publicly funded projects. Why is it important?

The Council for Science, Technology, and Innovation (CSTI) believes in a “High-Risk High-Impact” approach. The challenges that Moonshot research aims to address are multifaceted and complex. The outcome of novel research, needed to spur the innovation necessary to meet these challenges, is, by its nature, unknown. Like with personal investment, if we consider projects as part of a diversified portfolio, we can hedge risk, and accept some failures. Out of this structure, we expect Moonshot can yield disruptive innovation that realizes overarching goals.     

A framework for evaluating the projects in their 3rd and 5th years of operation has already been set out. What will be evaluated? Do you think the projects might change or be stopped following these evaluations?

Yes, it is possible that projects will be terminated or revised as a result of the periodic evaluation process. The evaluation criteria are detailed in further detail on pages 6-7 of the document Guidelines for Operation and Evaluation of Moonshot R&D Program. Furthermore, the Program Director has flexibility to make necessary changes to ensure the mission of the Moonshot goal is best being met. 

What’s next for the Moonshot Program?

We have opened calls for project proposals, so the next step will be selecting project managers. The Program Director will make a portfolio composed of these projects and research will being shortly after. To ensure that Moonshot research continues to contribute to solving critical issues, it is possible that Moonshot will evolve, potentially even adding other Moonshot Goals in the future.


Photo: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute


Related content: Global Call for Priorities for Science

The ISC has launched a call for inputs to shape a priority action agenda for science for the Sustainable Development Goals, and is currently collecting input from the scientific community on what science needs in order to maximize its impact on the achievement of the SDGs in the next decade. Submit your input by 2 October 2020.

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