Changing lives: Australia–Japan science links

To read about Japan-Australia innovation collaborations—including searching for new malaria drugs, giant robot trucks carrying ore, and chewing gum that reverses tooth decay—click here.

Japanese science changing Australia

The impact of Japanese technological prowess on Australian society is obvious for all to see. How we listened to music was transformed by audio recording technologies: from the Walkman to the CD. Home entertainment was changed by video tapes, DVDs, and game consoles. We rely on Japanese innovation in transport—reliable car engineering, the lean manufacturing techniques that made them affordable and, more recently, hybrid cars.

Nobel Laureate Shinya Yamanaka changed stem cell science. Credit: Gladstone Institutes/Chris Goodfellow
Nobel Laureate Shinya Yamanaka changed stem cell science. Credit: Gladstone Institutes/Chris Goodfellow

Fundamental science discoveries are bringing a new era of transformation. Japanese researchers were honoured last year with the Nobel Prize for their invention of the blue LED. They succeeded where for 30 years everyone else had failed. Incandescent light bulbs lit the 20th century; the 21st century will be lit by LED lamps—lasting a lifetime and using a fraction of the energy.

In 2006 Shinya Yamanaka discovered how intact mature cells in mice could be reprogrammed to become immature stem cells. By introducing only a few genes, he could reprogram mature cells to become pluripotent stem cells, that is, immature cells that are able to develop into all types of cells in the body. His work is transforming stem cell medicine and many Australian researchers are now using induced pluripotent stem cells to develop stem cell medicines.

Australian science changing Japan

It’s not a one way trade. Japanese lives are being improved by Australian inventions such as the bionic ear, gum that repairs tooth decay, sleep disorder treatments, lithium to treat bipolar disorder, aircraft black boxes, and anti-flu drugs, which are all in daily use in Japan.

And when you connect to a fast and reliable wi-fi network you can thank Australian astronomers, who in the process of searching for black holes, created tools for cleaning up radio waves.

Collaborating for the future

Today there are hundreds of thriving Australia–Japan research collaborations, many of which will have a profound impact on our lives in the years ahead.

In 2014 the Australian Research Council (ARC) supported 254 research projects with Japanese collaborators. Over the past five years, Japan has consistently placed within the 10 countries that have the highest number of collaborations with Australian researchers on Australian Research Council–funded projects.

The ARC reports that the most popular disciplines for collaboration with Japan are: material engineering; biochemistry and cell biology; atomic, molecular, nuclear, particle and plasma physics; astronomical and space sciences; and plant biology.

Research cooperation (as measured by co-authored publications) has doubled over the last decade. The quality and impact of these publications is significantly higher than the average for each country’s papers and both countries receive a quality dividend from working together.

There were about 6000 joint Australia–Japan publications from 2009-2013 and nearly 500 partnership agreements between Australian and Japanese universities, and the numbers are rising. There are strong and enduring relationships between science agencies in both countries.

Collaboration highlights

Using synchrotron light and neutron beams to investigate new materials for medicine,electronics and industry

Developing lead-free solders for solar cells and electric vehicles

Better diagnosis of foetal heart defects

Understanding earthquake history and improving prediction

Saving coral from starfish plagues

Seeing every cell in a whole adult brain

Understanding how herbicide resistance develops

Exploring the implications of phones that always know where we are.