Hello, and welcome to students newly enrolled in AY 2020. I am Teruo Fujii, president of the University of Tokyo as of this academic year.
I know that all of you have experienced many different hardships in your daily lives due to the rapid spread of the coronavirus, but also in your lives as graduate students, beginning with the cancellation of the Welcoming Ceremony for graduate students. That’s just one part of why I am so pleased to have this opportunity to see you all here in person, to show you my appreciation, and to welcome you as part of the University of Tokyo.
Japan and the rest of the world has faced a crisis such as we have never seen before, and the University has had to ask you to abide by so many restrictions regarding coming to campus, field work, and so on. I am sure that some people, without the chance to make new friends and connections on campus, have felt unsure about their futures studying and conducting research as graduate students. It must have been very frustrating for those of you who had been looking forward to going overseas for a variety of activities during graduate school.
The state of emergency that has necessitated these restrictions will continue into this academic year. I also want to apologize for the fact that we had no choice but to postpone this Welcoming Ceremony, which was originally planned for the end of April, at the last minute. We also heard from many that they hoped that the May Festival (Gogatsusai) could be held online, but unfortunately, it was ultimately decided that it should instead be postponed for two main reasons. The first is that, in contrast to September of last year, during which all lectures and meetings were held online, this academic year we are re-introducing some in-person lectures. We had to do everything we could to preserve those invaluable opportunities for learning on campus. The second reason is that we must act as a responsible member of society by working hard to prevent the spread of infection while the state of emergency is in effect for Tokyo. This is why it was pushed back to the fall, and we are currently in the process of considering how we can make sure that the event is as safe as possible.
As many of you may know, I myself contracted COVID-19 shortly after I took on the role of president here in April. I was in hospital for about two weeks. This experience brought home to me that infection risks are always all around us, no matter how cautious you are in taking preventive steps. More recently, we have seen even more infectious variants of the virus become more prevalent, and we continue to have trouble containing its spread. Allow me to express my sincere respect and appreciation to all those healthcare and medical professionals working tirelessly to fight against this virus across the world, striving to overcome this pandemic.
Though what has happened during this pandemic has brought new hardships upon us all, I think it has also taught us the significance of being able to study at the university. Now, worldwide problems like global warming, ocean pollution, discrimination, and inequality mean that divisions in the world have grown more pronounced, and our societies are changing rapidly.
I believe that the situation we are now in highlights and increases the value of universities. That’s because what we need most right now is to find a way to overcome these hardships together. We need for people to combine the expertise they have accumulated in their respective specialist domains with the various types of knowledge and wisdom born of experience to create a new type of knowledge that will serve as a new roadmap. As president of the University of Tokyo, I want to make it a place where such diverse types of knowledge are bloom and cross-pollinate to, in turn, bear new fruit. We are in the process of learning new skills through the difficult experiences we have been through this past year. The swell of the digital transformation in areas like education and research has gained speed as well.
And yet these new skills and technological innovations will not be the answers to all our problems. I believe the one thing that is more important than anything else is to have dialogue in spaces where people of all types of backgrounds come together. The University of Tokyo affords people from different countries and regions around the world, who have diverse backgrounds and ways of thinking, the opportunity to come together and get to know one another. The question of whether those opportunities will lead to the creation of a better world depends on what we make of them.
For example, while digital transformation does mean a revolution toward becoming a big data society, it does not necessarily mean that so much information zooming around in cyberspace will automatically encourage dialogue among people around the world and lead us in the direction of mutual understanding. The confusion sown by fake news, the divisions and opposition that arise through online flame wars, and the side effects of knee-jerk “likes” have exacerbated a number of concerning trends.
Even when it comes to the coronavirus vaccine, there is a great deal of information out there the veracity of which is not clear. It is precisely because we are surrounded by so much information in our world that we need to always be thinking about how accurate and reliable that information is, rather than accepting it uncritically. At the University of Tokyo, we endeavor to be proactive about releasing information that is as accurate as possible, but with so much information out there, you will all need to judge for yourselves what you will accept and what you will reject. The capacity to decide for yourself whether information is reliable or not before passing it on selectively has become absolutely essential.
This is exactly the reason that dialogue that includes a diversity of viewpoints is so important. When the only people who are involved in exchanging ideas and checking each other’s work all come from similar backgrounds and have a similar way of thinking, the information available tends to be biased, but people end up believing it. I want all of you to understand that dialogue between people who have diverse ways of thinking and diverse backgrounds will play a crucial role in creating a better society that puts all this data and information to good use. Of course, we know that that means putting an even greater emphasis than ever on diversity at the University of Tokyo as well.
As your sempai who studied at graduate school nearly 30 years ago, I want to take this opportunity of the welcoming ceremony to share with you some thoughts that I hope you will take to heart. These are curiosity about the unknown; creativity, the process that seeks to create new things; and collaboration in an atmosphere of mutual respect and cooperation. In fact, these three things are all closely intertwined.
At the Address for the Graduate Matriculation Ceremony this year, I introduced the project of the spacecraft “Hayabusa2” that delivered samples of sand and pebbles from the asteroid Ryugu to the earth in December last year.
In 2010, 10 years earlier, a probe named Hayabusa1 successfully returned samples from the asteroid Itokawa, the first time in human history that this feat had been achieved. Did you know that Japan’s space development program, the forerunner of Hayabusa, began at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Industrial Science? Dr. Hideo Itokawa at the Institute of Industrial Science led the project there to develop Japan’s first sounding rockets. The asteroid Itokawa was named after him.
He became involved in rocket research from the mid-1950s. However, there was in fact no technology to make a rocket in Japan at that time. In other words, this project was a quixotic attempt to rapidly develop from scratch, a rocket that could reach outer space.
Remember that to fly to a height of several tens of kilometers against the Earth’s gravitational pull, a rocket needs to generate a large thrust. Not only that, a mixture of solid fuel and oxidizer in the appropriate configuration and size is needed to ensure that the propulsive force acts in the right direction.
Given the common assumption that rockets must be large, you’ll realize that you can’t even think about beginning your research without a correspondingly large amount of fuel. Dr. Itokawa turned that idea on its head; instead he decided to develop a very small rocket that could fly on a tiny amount of gunpowder. His Pencil Rocket was only 23 centimeters long and weighed about 200 grams. I have a replica of it here. Compared to the image of a rocket you have, this is really small. He thought that no matter how small the rocket was, the most important idea was to study the principles of rocket flight in real life. In fact, the experiments using the Pencil Rocket provided his scientists with valuable experience and data, which proved useful for subsequent research.
Dr. Itokawa’s motto was “No-one’s done it before, so let’s give it a try.” The driving force behind this motto is the idea of not being bound by the prevailing wisdom, and the spirit of trying to do something or change something because it hasn’t been done before. This is exactly what makes the impossible possible and engenders creativity. We can also say that it is rooted in curiosity about the unknown. Whenever humans feel anxious, we tend to look to our textbooks and reach for precedents, or we try to follow trends and imitate the latest one. But you can’t create something new by continuing down the same path. In order to make the impossible possible, I want to stress to you here the importance of the attitude exemplified by “No-one’s done it before, so let’s give it a try,” rather than shying away because of lack of precedent.
One more point I would like you to understand is that the development of the rocket was a multidisciplinary project that involved many participants. It required expertise in various fields, including the design of the projectile, attitude control, the fuel technology mentioned above, and instrumentation.
For example, in a horizontal launch test of the Pencil Rocket that the rocket penetrates through sheets of thin paper arranged at regular intervals, which provides a record of the measurements of changes in velocity and trajectory aligned with photographs taken by a high-speed camera. This method was in fact a product of inventiveness accumulated in the field. Even today, the Institute of Industrial Science still has a dedicated department that is known as the Image Technology Room. In a multidisciplinary endeavor like this, it is crucial for each specialist to contribute to the project as a whole by applying their own cutting-edge knowledge and technologies.
The vaccines currently being used to fight the coronavirus across the globe would likely never have been possible through any one isolated specialty, and they were only realized through a multidisciplinary project. The WHO first received reports of an outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China, on December 31, 2019. Just ten days later, a researcher in China published the complementary base sequence of the virus’s DNA in an international journal, which was promptly made available on an international public database. Researchers around the world were able to use this publicly available sequence information to get to work on researching the novel coronavirus. The messenger RNA vaccine is one of the results of that research, and it was developed in the astoundingly short period of time of just less than a year.
In fact, factors such as a paradigm shift in the accepted knowledge with regard to RNA, and dialogue and cooperative creation between people in different positions were instrumental in the development of this vaccine.
Dr. Yasuhiro Furuichi, who completed his doctoral studies at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Pharmaceutical Sciences, and Dr. Kin-ichiro Miura, professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, were part of the team that discovered messenger RNA nucleoside modification and the RNA cap structure in 1974, crucial knowledge that proved to be absolutely essential in using RNA in a vaccine. Some thirty years later, in 2005, a group led by Dr. Katalin Karikó and Dr. Drew Weissman at the University of Pennsylvania discovered that nucleoside modifications to messenger RNA were able to control the natural immune response of a host, which led to the development of a messenger RNA vaccine. We should never forget that the products of basic research driven by the curiosity of researchers, such as the research of Dr. Furuichi and Dr. Karikó, unswayed by the demands of society or trends, have profound ties to the development of the coronavirus vaccines.
Meanwhile, the fact that a number of other groups competed to be the first to overcome the pandemic for the public good, including a biotechnology company that was applying messenger RNA in the development of cancer treatments, and the development at the University of Pennsylvania of an RNA vaccine for the virus that causes Zika fever, extending beyond the other projects, has served as a major driving force behind this development. Now, we’ve also been able to add research on SARS and MERS, close relatives of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, which is why it was possible to develop this new vaccine with such astonishing speed. This case has taught us a great deal about how scientific learning can contribute to the world, including making the information the research is based on publicly accessible, the critical importance of having different perspectives and approaches, and sharing an overall direction among a diversity of researchers.
The development of these vaccines alone, however, cannot bring the pandemic to an end. Right now, a vaccination program of unprecedented scale has been established, offering multiple logistical paths for some 100 million people to receive a vaccine. The University of Tokyo is also preparing to offer vaccinations, starting in July. While I do hope that this series of efforts will continue to make rapid progress and that the COVID-19 pandemic to be over as soon as possible, it is no easy task to vaccinate the entire world.
To begin with, the vaccine needs to be provided fairly to everyone in the world. To do so, an international coalition called COVAX Facility has been created to facilitate joint purchases of vaccines among multiple countries and to distribute them equitably. Japan is both a part of this coalition and is also working on independent support for vaccinations in developing countries. This is one way in which researchers are taking a global view and fulfilling their responsibility to society. If people in all kinds of different positions can respect one another and work together, even global-scale projects such as this one can be executed smoothly.
As I said earlier, the things I want you to value are a curiosity for the unknown, the creativity to make new things, and a cooperative spirit of mutual respect. What sorts of research are all of you engaged in now, I wonder?
Although it was a long time ago, my research interest lay in the development of a remote-controlled submersible that was free of cables for electricity and communications, so I chose this research topic for my master’s course. I was mainly working on its control system, but at some point I began to think of this uncrewed submersible as a “robot” and its control system as a “robot intelligence.” When I mentioned this to my supervisor, Professor Tamaki Ura, we decided to call our uncrewed submersibles “undersea robots” and uncrewed submersibles without control cables “autonomous undersea robots.”
To further my research on control systems, Professor Ura and I together read through and absorbed, chapter by chapter, the textbook Mathematics of Neural Networks by Professor Shun-ichi Amari, who was then in the Department of Mathematical Engineering and Information Physics at the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Tokyo. Through this process of reading and explanation, I began to conduct research on the control of undersea robots using neural networks, currently in the spotlight in AI and machine learning, and this eventually became my master’s thesis.
This is no more than a single example from my student days, but I encourage you to broaden your thinking, feel free to explore your interests, and try to get involved with many people. You should be able to find different perspectives from those of your teachers and seniors. If each and every one of you has interests that lead to new scholarship, it will result in the creation of multi-colored and multi-layered knowledge for the university and society as a whole. Dialogue among researchers from different fields and backgrounds and delving into in-depth discussion are key to discovering high-quality ideas and more sensitive approaches.
There is one thing I want you to keep in mind when you grow your interests. That is that just because you have freedom it doesn’t mean you can do anything you like. You must remember that freedom always comes with responsibility. It is also necessary to stop and ponder whether you have tackled the subject with a genuine desire to understand or whether the successful outcome of your hard work will really benefit society, will it be a threat to humankind or the earth, or will it harm others. Such a dialogue with yourself, so to speak, is a very important practice for those of us in the sciences.
This ethical regulation is part of the fabric of social responsibility for those who enjoy academic freedom and generate new scientific knowledge. In order to implement appropriate self-regulation, it is essential to have a vivid imagination about the medium- to long-term impacts of technology on society. To do so, you should study one area of specialization in depth, and at the same time become exposed to the academic knowledge and culture of different fields, as well as the activities of the arts. It will also require the ability to interact with researchers from different disciplines. The University of Tokyo is eager to offer such a venue to you all.
In closing, I look forward to your future success: developing your curiosity about the unknown to try something because no-one’s done it before, your creativity to create new things in an enjoyable atmosphere, and your collaborative spirit to respect and proactively interact with people from different backgrounds.
The University of Tokyo
June 26th and 27th, 2021