Message to graduate students matriculating in fall 2021

Nagahiro Minato, 27th President

Today, Kyoto University welcomes 78 new students enrolling in master’s programs, 125 enrolling in doctoral programs, and 6 enrolling in professional degree programs. On behalf of all of the university’s faculty and staff members, I congratulate each and every one of you on your enrollment at Kyoto University. I also extend my warmest congratulations to your families, and all those who have encouraged and supported you thus far.

Due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, it has unfortunately become necessary to hold this entrance ceremony online. The COVID-19 pandemic, which began spreading around the world at the beginning of last year, has not yet been contained, and the world faces an extremely severe situation, with over 200 million people infected and 4.5 million deaths. It is regrettable that the current circumstances prevent me from congratulating you in person, but I am thankful that I can at least do so online.

Your enrollment in a master’s, doctoral, or professional program at Kyoto University represents a new step towards mastery of your chosen field of specialization. I would like to begin by giving a brief overview of the university’s history. Kyoto University was established in 1897 as the second imperial university in Japan. At that time, Japan sought to establish its position as one of the world’s modern nations. In the middle of the 19th century, people recognized that the rapid development of science and technology would have a significant effect not only on people’s daily lives, but also on the world’s politics and economy. That realization prompted the idea that universities should play a key role in science and technology research. In Germany at that time, a higher education model that integrated research and teaching had already been established in the University of Berlin and other institutions. In the US, Johns Hopkins University launched the world’s first graduate program, in which university graduates pursued more advanced studies and research. Against that backdrop, for over 120 years since its establishment, Kyoto University has valued “academic freedom” and contributed to society through a pursuit of truth that is centered on creative research.

You are all about to embark on your new lives as graduate students under the extremely difficult circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this is, of course, not the first time that humanity has experienced such a large-scale pandemic. It is no exaggeration to say that the long history of humankind has been a history of battling with infectious diseases. Thus far, humanity has overcome many serious infectious disease threats, which have caused a great many deaths. In challenging situations, it is often helpful to refer to history as a guide for action, and it would certainly be of value now to look back on our history of fighting against infectious diseases.

In his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, Prof. Jared Diamond of the University of California, Los Angeles, asserts that the development of most major human infectious diseases began approximately 10,000 years ago when humans began to domesticate certain wild animals. One of the most devastating infectious diseases in human history was smallpox, which is thought to have originated from a bovine plague virus in domesticated cattle. Approximately 10,000 years ago, human beings were widely distributed and settled on all continents. However, long before the armed invasion by Spain, the indigenous population of the Americas had already decreased significantly due to the spread of smallpox from the Eurasian continent. It is possible that the indigenous people of the Americas, who had no livestock, may have had no resistance to the virus.

One of the reasons human beings have not become extinct despite having suffered severe damage from numerous serious infectious diseases is that, in the course of evolution, we have developed a biological system, which we call “immunity,” that can precisely identify and effectively eliminate various pathogens that invade our bodies. It is a remarkable mechanism whereby each individual in the same species pre-emptively develops diverse non-predetermined systems to identify unspecified foreign invaders in the process of their growth and development. The diverse identification systems are formed spontaneously, which results in significant variation between individuals. However, considered from the perspective of a species, this mechanism ensures an extremely high degree of diversity within the identification system. The immune system is a biological reaction system that has evolved to ensure the species’ survival, and a highly sophisticated strategy to minimize a population’s risk of extinction when facing unknown and dangerous pathogens. A weakness of this biological system is that, in some cases, many individuals may die before a population can acquire the required resistance to an infection.

In modern times, however, human beings have developed scientific solutions to compensate for the weaknesses of our remarkable immune system, and thereby obtained even more powerful means to overcome infectious diseases. The smallpox virus originated from the cowpox virus, which actually causes only a mild illness in humans. At the end of the 18th century, while he was still just a young trainee, Edward Jenner, an English physician, overheard a woman who was infected with the cowpox virus saying that she did not develop smallpox because she milked cows. Remembering this, Jenner conducted an extremely audacious experiment in which he injected a servant’s child with cowpox, and then, six weeks later, injected the same child with smallpox. He reported in the results of the experiment that the child did not develop smallpox. Despite rumors that being inoculated with cowpox would turn a person into a cow, this method of inoculation gradually came into use, and it was eventually given the name “vakzin” or “vaccine,” which is derived from the Latin word “vacca,” meaning cow.  

Jenner was not able to elucidate the mechanism. However, at the end of the 19th century, Louis Pasteur, a French chemist, discovered that vaccination works based on “immune memory,” a function of the immune system that remembers precisely which pathogens have invaded, and reacts more strongly and effectively to them when they re-enter the body. The smallpox vaccine was steadily improved and became widely used around the world. Then, in 1980, approximately 200 years after Jenner’s experiment, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that smallpox had been eradicated from the Earth. With the development of science, human beings were able to eradicate one of the world’s most serious infectious disease threats. In the 18th century, the polio virus caused an poliomyelitis epidemic in different areas of the world, which caused the deaths of many children. However, thanks to the polio vaccine developed in the US by Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin in the 1950s, there have been practically no new cases of polio reported, save for a few cases in a very small number of countries, and it is thought that polio may also be completely eradicated from the Earth in the not-too-distant future. As you probably know, measles and many other infectious diseases have been almost completely contained thanks to the use of vaccines, even though they have not been eradicated yet.

Currently, COVID-19 vaccinations are being administered around the world, and we are in the midst of a battle between human beings and a new infectious disease. However various issues regarding the vaccines have been raised in several countries. Notably, issues regarding matters such as the global disparity in vaccine distribution and conflicts between public interest and individual rights are social issues that go beyond scientific concerns such as the development of new vaccines and the evaluation of effectiveness and adverse reactions.

In the 1990s, Dr. Jerome Ravetz, a philosopher of science at the University of Oxford, said that there are “questions which can be asked of science, but which science is not yet able to answer.” He refers to this as the area of “post-normal science.” In such an area, facts are highly complex and uncertain and numerous stakes are involved in decision-making, therefore scientific and academic findings are not always directly reflected in social decision making. Naturally, these are not issues that can be solved by artificial intelligence. Much the same is true regarding the current pandemic, as well as other global issues that we are now facing, such as rapid global climate change, large-scale natural disasters, population and food issues, and the declining birth rate and ageing population in developed countries.

There are many important issues that could impact human existence, but regarding which it is not easy to achieve a social consensus. How should science and academia respond to such questions? Dr. Ravetz proposed “the science of safety, health, and environment, plus ethics” as a common guideline for all sciences and academia. I hope that all of you who embark on research in different academic fields will not only continue to develop your expertise and research skills, but will also think about and discuss the role that science and academia should play in society.

Having said that, research should be motivated by an individual’s curiosity and desire to explore the unknown. These have always been the forces that drive us, and that will never change. Each and every one of you is motivated to be creative, and you may also be lucky enough to experience the unparalleled joy that can only be achieved by dedicating yourself to rigorous training. I have spent over 40 years in the world of research, and have thoroughly enjoyed it. I hope that all of you will also fully enjoy every day of your lives as researchers here at Kyoto University.

In closing, I offer my sincere congratulations once again to each and every one of you on your enrollment.