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Editorial: Japan gov't shifting focus in debate over status of science council

A Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) project team is proposing that the Science Council of Japan become independent from the government in about three years as the team discusses the future shape of Japan's representative body of scientists and scholars. The government is also considering turning the council into a nongovernmental organization.

    The debate over a review of the science council was raised immediately after it came to light that Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga had refused to appoint six of the 105 scholars nominated as new council members. It is obvious that the move to review the council was aimed at fending off criticism over Suga's rejections and shifting the focus of contention to the council's positioning.

    The science council has called on Suga to reveal his reasons for declining the six appointments. However, the prime minister has merely reiterated that he made the decision "from a comprehensive and broad view."

    The LDP project team has reportedly concluded that the science council ought to become a nongovernmental organization, like scientific academies in Europe and the United States, for its members to engage in its activities more freely. However, the history surrounding academia in Japan differs from that of Europe or the United States.

    Japan introduced modern science with the Meiji Restoration in the late 19th century. Universities were set up at the initiative of the state, and academic systems were established. Based on this history, the Science Council of Japan was launched as a special organization under the government's umbrella. At the same time, it was stipulated in law that the science council's activities would be independent of the government.

    The latest move to review the status of the science council disregards this background. Even if the council is transformed into a nongovernmental body by following other countries' models, it would not necessarily be workable.

    Resentment continues to smolder within the Suga administration over the science council's statement on military research released in 2017. The statement pointed out that a funding program for national security technology research, which was launched by the Acquisition, Technology & Logistics Agency, "has many problems due to governmental interventions into research."

    In response to the statement, a host of universities in Japan decided not to apply for subsidies under the system. If the government were to step up control over the science council, which does not conform to government policy, by wielding its appointment power, it would be acting outside of reason.

    Such a move would also affect international trust in the science council. The president of the International Science Council, to which the Science Council of Japan belongs, blasted Suga's decision not to appoint the six scholars, stating in an open letter, "We ... view very seriously the implications this has for scientific freedom in Japan." The international body also pointed out that decisions of a scientific nature should not be subject to government control or pressure.

    Although the Science Council of Japan got rolling under a new setup, about 10% of seats in its Section I for humanities and social sciences remain vacant due to Suga's refusal to appoint the six academics.

    The government itself is undermining Japan's status as a scientific and technological powerhouse. First and foremost, Prime Minister Suga bears the responsibility to explain why he refused to appoint those scholars.

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