Autumn 2017 Entrance Ceremony Address by the President 【October, 10 2017】
What is the True Significance of Academic Research?
Welcome to SOKENDAI and congratulations on your acceptance to our university. SOKENDAI is a graduate university with no undergraduate programs. This means that you have made a decision to leave behind your undergraduate institutions and pursue research here in a new setting. That makes me very proud. The future of academia depends on you, so it is with great joy that we welcome you as new graduate students to SOKENDAI.
For the next three or five years, each of you will dedicate yourselves to academic research. But what does that mean? What is it that you truly want to do? For you personally, as well as for society more generally, what is the meaning of research? To be sure, we will provide you with a quality educational program and educational and research environment to allow you to pursue quality research. After all, cultivating tomorrow’s community of scholars and researchers is our duty. That said, what does research mean to you, and how will you explain such meaning to society?
SOKENDAI is a National University Corporation. That means the majority of our activities are supported by the state. In other words, most of your research and education is funded through taxes and supported by Japanese society. Each of you is at the point where you are just beginning your research so you may not yet have a broader vision of the significance of your research activities for society at large. You may not yet see beyond the research that you want to pursue. Indeed, those of you just beginning five-year programs may not even yet have a clear set of objectives regarding the research you want to conduct; some of you may only know that you want to pursue research of some kind. And that is fine. You should take time to find your direction.
That said, as you proceed with your own research, I hope that you will give thought to the significance of academic research in general and to the relationship between research and society so, eventually, you can form your own opinions about them.
In Japan today, scientific research is expected to drive new societal innovations and serve as an engine of economic growth in Japanese society. Some years back, there were even people who made the outrageous argument that humanity studies were unnecessary at a national university—an argument that, fortunately, was refuted.
How is it that such an argument ever came about? This is the logic behind it, I think: As knowledge in the natural sciences advances, new technological innovations emerge based that knowledge; these innovations are expected to drive economic growth, hence there is reason to provide national support for research in the natural sciences. From that standpoint, the humanity studies are not seen as drivers of economic growth and that is why, I suspect, some people labeled them “unnecessary.”
Since ancient times people have had a desire to understand and explain the natural world around them. Eventually, after many twists and turns, this desire evolved into what today we call the natural sciences. At the same time, people have also had the desire to make use of the natural world around them and invent objects that are useful in their everyday lives. And we have done so over time through trial and error. From the first stone tools created millions of years ago to the invention of agriculture and domestication of animals, as well as the invention and refinement of various other technologies of everyday life since, we have been witness to an unbroken history of technology. Those are the manifests of two utterly different facets of human nature, the scientific and the technological. With the early modern age, science and technology became inseparable as we realized that knowledge of natural laws gained in the natural sciences, based on a combination of experimentation and observation, induction and deduction, could be used to develop various useful technologies in an extremely efficient way.
But then what happened? As a result, scientific inquiry came to be seen primarily as existing in order to contribute to technological development and, ultimately, to the economic growth of the state. “Basic research is important.” That’s what we always say. But why? The reason that tends to be given is that truly significant technological innovation requires a broad foundation of basic science, even if we do not currently know its importance in innovation. I ask you: Is that really enough of a reason? Is the reason that basic science is important simply because someday its broad foundations will generate technological innovations and economic growth?
This is a valid perspective, but it need not be the only one. Today it is the only real reason given to justify the broad-based development of basic science but I firmly believe there are other reasons. Here is just one: The pursuit of understanding is an inescapable part of our human nature; we value knowing over not knowing. A “knowledgeable” person can gain the wisdom needed to understand our world deeply and correctly better than an “unknowledgeable” person can.
It used to be that people believed in the geocentric Ptolemaic system. With advances in research that view was discredited and replaced with today’s heliocentric view. The Newtonian laws of motion, which were formulated over the 17th and early 18th centuries, were extremely effective at explaining the motion of physical objects in the natural world. Subsequently, with Einstein’s theory of relativity and the advent of quantum mechanics, our understanding of the physical world was significantly transformed.
Or take the field of biology, in which our current knowledge is vastly ahead of what it was just 200 or 300 years ago. The refuted theory of spontaneous generation, which held that life spontaneously arises anywhere, has been replaced with our understanding that life only produces life. We have learned that DNA molecules carry genetic information, and that different species of living organisms had not been separately created, but are all connected through evolutionary history. From ecosystems to nervous systems and the brain, we have amassed vast bodies of knowledge. What we know today about life is nothing like what we knew just 200 hundred years ago.
In long-term perspective, today’s body of cutting-edge knowledge eventually becomes common knowledge among ordinary people and shapes our understanding of the world, humanity and nature. The worldview of people 200 years ago has been substantially re-written by the growth of our scientific knowledge over the past 200 years. Even though ordinary people may not understand the minutiae of science, humanity’s collective knowledge acts as the foundation upon which people understand their world.
Similarly, by examining the diverse range of human behavior and thought from unconventional angles, the humanity studies and social sciences provide us with new perspectives on human culture, history, social organization, and ways of seeing. They overturn beliefs we had taken for granted and reveal perspectives we had failed to recognize.
In my view, these things are the very fruits of our labor as academics in the context of human history. We increase our collective knowledge and, with it, increase our ability to reflect on our world, our history and ourselves. Often the true nature of a natural or social phenomenon is not what it initially appears to be. To reveal the truth requires experts capable of doing so. We are those experts.
The spiraling depth and complexity of scientific knowledge may reflect the inevitable process of scientific development; ideas in the humanities may entail overly specialized debates and even pedantic fields of inquiry. Left to that, ordinary people will fail to understand or even take an interest in our work. Perhaps this is why we resort to the easily understood scenario that connects our work to technological innovation and to economic growth. That scenario is a valid one, off course; but, as scholars and researchers, we must understand and prize the true purpose of academic research. Scholars and researchers must all contribute to our knowledge with new information, but they must also reflect on how knowledge gives birth to wisdom. I have shared my own thoughts about it with you, but each of you needs to think about it for yourselves as well.
As you set out to produce quality research and write magnificent doctoral dissertations based upon it, I wish each of you the best of luck. In the future when you reflect on your years at SOKENDAI, I also hope you will remember them as truly enjoyable, meaningful ones. Once again, congratulations on your acceptance to SOKENDAI.
October 10, 2017
Mariko Hasegawa, Ph.D., President
Posted On 2017.10.10 By
Shonan Village, Hayama, Kanagawa 240-0193 Japan