Japan’s new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, has disrupted the process by which scientists are appointed to serve on the governing body of the country’s leading academic society. Researchers see the move against the Science Council of Japan (SCJ) as a threat to academic freedom.
SCJ makes policy recommendations, promotes scientific literacy and international cooperation, and represents the interests of more than 800,000 scholars in virtually all academic disciplines. Its current president is Takaaki Kajita, a 2015 Nobel Prize winner in physics who just assumed his post.
The council’s governing body, called the General Assembly, is made up of 210 members serving staggered 6-year terms that began last week. Although the council is nominally under the jurisdiction of the prime minister, its general assembly members are traditionally appointed in a pro forma step by the prime minister after being recommended by an SCJ selection committee. But this year, Suga withheld his blessing from six academics, from a list of 105 put forward, who work in the social sciences, law, and the humanities.
Suga did not give a reason for his veto, which became apparent when the list of approved members became public on 1 October. A spokesperson for his office told local media the prime minister is not obligated to appoint the recommended people. But all six of the scholars had criticized legislation adopted by the previous administration, during which Suga was chief cabinet secretary.
It’s not clear what will happen next. SCJ wants Suga to explain his decision and has asked him to promptly appoint the six who were not approved. Satoshi Ihara, secretary general of the Japan Scientists’ Association, called the prime minister’s decision “illegal” under the law governing SCJ’s special status.
The Mainichi Shimbun, a national daily newspaper, called Suga’s move “a serious case of political intervention that could threaten academic freedom in this country.” A small band of protesters marched in front of the prime minister’s official residence on 3 October.