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Opinion

The Great East Japan Earthquake

Science and Technology-Has the Vital Information Been Delivered?
-Taking the Activities of the Science Media Centre at the Time of the Earthquake as an Example-

Miho Namba
Associate Professor, Journalism Course, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University

We relied on the Internet and Twitter

On March 11, 2011, on the campus of Waseda University in Shinjuku, Tokyo, those in laboratories and study rooms on some floors experienced such incredible shaking that they could not stay on their feet. We, on the staff of the Science Media Centre (SMC), also evacuated outdoors. On the PCs brought outside with us we looked at Twitter, where people began to confirm the safety of family, friends, and acquaintances, as posts were flowing in from all over Japan.

Our own past posts can be checked on a service called Twilog.

I myself posted at 14:48: "Earthquake. This is a long one. It's bigger than the one the other day. It's getting bigger and bigger.." I then began posting sporadically about the circumstances in the area around the university and the situation of the tsunami damage that I had seen on One-Seg broadcasts. At 16:16, I found that someone was relaying the NHK coverage on the TV screen via Internet broadcast, and I posted the URL. At 17:00, I called on earthquake and disaster experts to provide information to the SMC. At this point, unable to connect using landline phones, mobile phones, or mobile phone email, I could not confirm the safety of my son, an elementary school student in Chiba prefecture. I was also unable to convey the message that it didn't look as if I would be able to return home that night. In a university office with no television reception, on March 11, I got all of my information via the Internet.

Winning the NISTEP Award

For its vigorous efforts in providing information on the accident at the nuclear power plant and the exposure to radiation in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake Disaster, the SMC-which is operated mainly by researchers at Waseda University (research commissioned by the Research Institute of Science and Technology for Society (RISTEX), Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST))-was selected as winner of the National Institute of Science and Technology Policy (NISTEP) NISTEP Award at the end of 2011.

It is my aim to introduce here what it is that we-a small organization that was just launched in October of 2010-communicated to society and what we intend to achieve.

Among SMC staff members, all of whom became kitaku nanmin, or stranded commuters, on the day that the earthquake struck, I myself had been particularly intent on making it home that night, as I was hosting an event in Sapporo the following day. In the middle of the night I learned that the Toei Shinjuku Line had resumed operations-information that, again, I got from Twitter-and I tried to go home.

SMC staff who had gone home once on the 11th, on the other hand, were unable to contact the university or the research centre over the following days-the 12th and 13th, Saturday and Sunday-but they continued collecting information without taking a day off.

Among those in the media, some complained at the time that, "first-rate researchers are in the official residence, second-rate researchers are packed into the TV stations, and the only researchers we can reach are third-rate and those retired." This is an absurd joke, but in fact, not only small organizations like ours, but also the mainstream media were struggling to find experts and get their comments. Right through the beginning of the next week, power outages and disruptions of public transportation continued, and even if you could find a useful paper on earthquakes and environmental pollution, it was very difficult to get in touch with the scholar who authored it.

What was Accomplished at the SMC

Under these circumstances, the first information we provided was: Information on the Earthquake in the Pacific Ocean off the Coast of the Tohoku Region: Useful Links. This information comprised links to public organizations providing information that people wanted to know, which were gathered by volunteer researchers from related fields, such as science, technology and society, as well as SMC staff, who analyzed information posted on the Web and through Twitter to determine what information people wanted most at the time. On the 13th, we published the results of a discussion which University of Tokyo professor Ryugo Hayano led via Twitter and information obtained from links as an article entitled Q&A on the Nuclear Power Stations. The article was successively revised and updated until March 16 through the collaboration of volunteer students from the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Management at the University of Tokyo and numerous anonymous experts.

During this period at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, nuclear reactors were damaged one after another, as hydrogen explosions occurred on the 12th at the Number 1 reactor, and on the 14th at the Number 3 reactor. The press conference held by TEPCO was joined not only by journalists from television stations, but also by Internet broadcasters like Nico Nico Douga and freelance journalists, so we average citizens were able to see the full picture of the press conference. Then, these journalist abruptly began to blame TEPCO employees without asking questions and brandished their own sense of justice, apparently not being able to calmly ask questions on the things that we wanted to find out at the time.

The first expert comment we were able to get was from Professor Yoshiaki Oka, who specializes in nuclear reactor engineering. On March 15th, in between overseas business trips, Professor Oka commented on his current view on the situation of the accident and on the response going forward, as much as possible at the moment. On March 16th, we published Links on Radiation Monitoring Information at Public Institutions Nationwide. At this point, we were searching for experts who could explain the information that radioactive materials carried by the wind spread not concentrically, but rather in clumps called plumes. We were able to obtain comments from Dr. Toshimasa Ohara of the National Institute for Environmental Studies, ahead of the mainstream media, and published On the Airborne Spread of Radioactive Contaminants on March 18th.

On the health effects of exposure to radiation, we obtained comments from Keio University lecturer Makoto Kondo on 18th and Nagasaki University professor (at the time) Shunichi Yamashita, who then went back and forth by helicopter between Tokyo and Fukushima to discuss the response to the disaster, on 22nd.

We were also able to draw on the strength of cooperation with the SMCs in four countries overseas. We have published the comments on the accident and the spread of radioactive material from specialists collected by overseas SMCs immediately after we obtained them. At the same time, we translate into English nearly all specialist comments relating to the earthquake disaster in Japan-where there is little dissemination of information in English-and distribute this information through the SMCs overseas. In the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake Disaster, the number of articles throughout the world that used the comments distributed by the SMCs reached 3,959 in just a three-month period after the earthquake struck (Source: Australian SMC).

What the SMC wants to Communicate

What do the people want to know, and how should we convey the scientific information in response? The SMC began as a research project seeking to answer these questions. In our Science Alerts, the SMC aims to convey the expertise of specialists on issues of scientific information that are likely to become headline news from an unbiased perspective. Since the inception of the project, we on the staff have engaged in vigorous debate and at the same time, we have communicated with numerous external researchers as well. Thanks to this network of personal connections, since the Earthquake Disaster we have been able to obtain information and advice from numerous specialists and disseminate information to help people think about science and technology. On March 16, for example, with the help of researchers at Kanazawa University, we published: Links on Disaster Support Information for the Socially Vulnerable.

We have introduced the comments of specialists on science and technology issues that have divided opinion, including: On Low-Dose Radiation Exposure, On the Direction of Energy Policy Going Forward, On Decontamination Using Plants (Phytoremediation), and On the Recommendations of the ICRP and ECRR. With respect to these points, we cannot say that government announcements or media interest are unbiased. We Japanese are now keenly aware of the fact that technology is not perfect, and that there are areas in science that are not clearly understood. These points-how we should deal with risks and use science and technology-are issues for each of us, and we at the Science Media Centre aim to continue going forward gathering the support of many and distributing information on science and technology for everyone to consider.

Related URLs

Science Media Centre of Japan: http://smc-japan.org/

On the winning of NISTEP Award: http://www.waseda.jp/jp/news11/111227_nistep.html

Miho Namba
Associate Professor, Journalism Course, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University

Graduated from the Faculty of Agriculture, the University of Tokyo and completed the Master's Course at Graduate School of Science, Hokkaido University. After working in the Literature Bureau at Kodansha, worked as a freelance editor and reporter. From 2005, Associate Professor, Communicators in Science and Technology Education Program, Hokkaido University. From 2010, took up her current post, in which she is involved in science communication and journalism training, as well as the establishment and management of the Science Media Centre of Japan.