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1 year on, Japan science council's rejection of military research has little traction

Kazunari Shibata, chairman of the Astronomical Society of Japan (ASJ), speaks at an ASJ-organized event themed on "security and astronomy," at Chiba University in the city of Chiba on March 14, 2018. (Mainichi)

It's been a year since the high-powered Science Council of Japan (SCJ) adopted a statement upholding its postwar rejection of military research, attracting much attention from within and without the academic circles.

While the SCJ called on other academic groups to come up with their own research guidelines as well, responses remain sluggish, raising questions as to the efficacy of the SCJ's 2017 statement. The government, meanwhile, has been steadily integrating military and civilian research, including through turning the guiding body for Japan's science and technology policy into one more focused on national security.

"If we run a research laboratory with a clear policy of not engaging in military affairs, students won't apply for the lab and the policy will get criticized online," said an instructor at a regional university, during a March 14 event organized by the Astronomical Society of Japan (ASJ) and themed on military research. The instructor's lament was echoed by many other attendees, who spoke of difficulties in discerning how to draw a line between military and civilian research.

While astronomy tends to be regarded as an academic sphere distant from military affairs, astronomers were mobilized for the development of radio wave weapons during World War II.

Starting November 2017, the ASJ's journal has been running a monthly column themed on the relations between astronomy and military affairs. In its first installment, University of Tokyo professor Yasushi Suto called for careful discussion among young researchers by citing an example of astronomy being closely linked to military affairs, in such technologies as infrared optical materials and high-powered lasers.

Nevertheless, there are strong reservations within the ASJ -- whose membership includes many non-faculty researchers such as those from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan -- about mapping out the group's own research guidelines. A survey of younger ASJ members showed a majority saw no problem with military research as long as it falls "within the bounds of Japan's exclusively defense-oriented policy."

Kyoto University professor and ASJ Chairman Kazunari Shibata commented, "(The issue) isn't that simple, because some of our members are worried about the government possibly slashing budgets for major research programs if we oppose government policy, or are concerned that setting our own guidelines could hinder their research."

The SCJ adopted the new statement rejecting military research in March last year -- in the first move of its kind in half a century -- in response to a rise in domestic research programs funded by the Ministry of Defense or U.S. forces. In the statement, the SCJ suggested that universities and other research institutions set up systems for screening whether research programs that could be considered as military in nature are appropriate from technical and ethical points of view, and requested that academic societies draw up their own research guidelines.

However, major academic groups in the natural sciences have yet to work out guidelines. The Japan Federation of Engineering Societies, whose membership includes the Japan Society of Mechanical Engineers and 95 other academic bodies, confirmed at a board meeting last year that the federation would not respond to the SCJ statement. The Japanese Society for Artificial Intelligence (JSAI) drew up its ethical guidelines in 2017, but they do not include the pros and cons of military research. While the legitimacy of AI-controlled weapons is already controversial globally, one JSAI ethics committee member confided on condition of anonymity, "Whatever researchers say about the matter would bring them no benefit. To remain silent is the best policy."

The SCJ plans to conduct a fact-finding survey on research screening systems at universities and other research institutions and to announce the results at a general meeting in April. However, less than half of 84 major universities polled by the Mainichi Shimbun last year responded that they "positively evaluated" the screening scheme. Meanwhile, a briefing session for the Defense Ministry-funded national security technology research promotion program attracted over 160 researchers this year. It is expected that no small number of researchers will apply, enticed by the initiative's 10 billion yen-plus budget.

Kyoto University President and SCJ President Juichi Yamagiwa noted, "If universities and academic bodies respond differently, it may hinder exchange among researchers. We would like to find out the actual situation and consider measures to be taken."

In a related development, Kyoto University on March 28 instituted a basic policy not to carry out military research at the school, on the grounds that such research could lead to threats to tranquility in society, human happiness and peace. A standing committee set up by the president of the prestigious university will discuss whether individual cases are appropriate. The school had set up a working group in May last year to look into the issue in response to the SCJ statement opposing military research.

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