Research groups in Japan are resisting a government plan to put greater control over the Science Council of Japan (SCJ), the country’s national scientific academy. They argue that the changes would expose the council to political influence and weaken its independence.
More than five dozen academic societies, as well as SCJ itself, have raised concerns that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) will soon ask the National Diet to create a new outside panel to help with selection. the 210 SCJ members who oversee the organization’s activities. Traditionally, this supervisory council is chosen by SCJ itself. SCJ is asking the government to reconsider its plan, which it says could expose the organization to “political and administrative control or pressure..“
The proposal comes amid growing friction between SCJ and politicians from the LDP, a conservative party that has ruled Japan almost continuously since 1955. For many years, the process of selecting supervisory council members, who serve staggered terms 6 appointed year and a half. every 3 years, it was not controversial. Candidates are nominated by the SCJ committee and approved by the general assembly, usually by consensus. Legally, however, SCJ is under the jurisdiction of Japan’s prime minister, who must formally appoint the council. (SCJ also has about 2000 associate members appointed by the SCJ president for 6-year terms.)
In 2020, then Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga broke with precedent and blocked the appointment of six of the 105 nominated scholars. Suga never explained why. But the rejected scholars – from the social sciences, law, and humanities – had criticized the legislation passed by the previous LDP administration. Those six were never appointed.
Politicians have complained that the SCJ’s process for selecting the supervisory council is too restrictive. SCJ wants to address those concerns. For example, in identifying the 105 candidates for terms starting in October, SCJ says it is casting a wide net, seeking recommendations from its long-relied academic societies and business groups. and industries, bar associations, and consumer and labor organizations.
Despite these steps, on December 6, 2022 the Japanese Cabinet Office issued a brief statement declaring that the SCJ “must make major reforms.” On 21 December, he then outlined a proposal to amend the law underpinning the SCJ. Among other things, the amendments would create a new committee made up of third parties, other than members of the SCJ, to “provide opinions” on supervisory council nominations. The statement did not specify who would appoint the committee, how many members it would have, or whether its recommendations would be binding.
Such outside involvement would be highly unusual, says Yukari Takamura, an international law scholar at the University of Tokyo who is SCJ vice president. “Other national academies never have such third-party committee intervention” in the selection of supervisory bodies, she says.
Although details are unclear, “It is clear that the amendment is intended to strengthen the government’s power over the SCJ,” says Tadashi Kobayashi, professor emeritus of the philosophy of science at Osaka University.
He and others believe the LDP’s motivation is to influence SCJ’s policy recommendations. They point to an incident in 2017 when the government greatly increased funding for academic research into dual-use technologies that can be used for both civilian and military purposes. SCJ encouraged institutions to study the implications of accepting the money, due to a long-standing taboo on military research in universities resulting from the academic collaboration with the Japanese government during World War II. “This proposal (SCJ) worked as an excuse for universities to refrain from interfering with this funding, and this affected the LDP,” says Kobayashi, SCJ adviser.
The LDP’s current move to amend the law is clearly related “to the 2017 statement” on military research, says Akio Komorida, professor emeritus of law at the University of Tokyo. “LDP politicians criticized this statement, which shows the contradiction between research on military security and academic freedom.”
The other positions of the SCJ also affected LDP officials. In 2018, the council concluded that the expected scientific payoff from the proposed International Linear Collider, a massive physics facility that Japan hopes to host, was too small to justify the estimated $7 billion cost. defend. That result upset politicians representing the Tohoku region where the facility would be built.
The government aims to submit its plan to the LDP-controlled Diet, which is almost certain to approve any proposal, in March, says Yasuaki Kodama, director of the Policy Promotion Office. General of the Cabinet. “We are still looking for an opportunity to discuss the issues with the Science Council,” he says.
The controversy is already hampering SCJ’s efforts to recruit candidates for its supervisory council, Takamura says. “I hear there was a bit of hesitation about being named because people are afraid they might be rejected,” she says.
Physicist Takaaki Kajita, Nobel laureate and current president of SCJ, says there is a lot at stake. “If (SCJ’s) scientific independence is limited,” he says, “I think our role will change a lot.”