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Takaaki Kajita, president of the Science Council of Japan, speaks to reporters after meeting with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in Tokyo on 16 October 2020.

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Japan’s top science advice group battles government over independence and identity

After months of political skirmishing, the Japanese government’s top scientific advisory council finds itself embroiled in a two-front struggle with the nation’s elected leaders. One battle centers on Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s unprecedented decision to block the appointment of several scholars to the governing body of the Science Council of Japan (SCJ), the nation’s equivalent of a national science academy. The other involves a proposal from Suga’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to convert SCJ, now a part of the government, into an independent entity at least partly responsible for raising its own funds.  

Science groups have criticized both moves. And analysts say the conflicts have highlighted long-standing tensions between the council and the LDP, Japan’s dominant political party, over SCJ’s effectiveness and a 2017 statement in which it opposed military research. The Suga administration’s recent moves represent “a governmental counterattack,” says Morihisa Hamada, a volcanologist at the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology.

The struggle began in earnest in October 2020, after Suga withheld approval of six out of 105 scholars nominated to serve on SCJ’s governing General Assembly, which has 210 members serving staggered 6-year terms. Approval has traditionally been a pro forma step, and Suga has never clearly explained what led to his decision. But all six of the blocked academics—lawyers and humanities specialists—had previously criticized LDP policies.

Hundreds of the country’s academic societies condemned the move. And the International Science Council, which represents more than 200 science organizations around the world, also raised concerns. “We … view very seriously the implications this has for scientific freedom in Japan,” council President Daya Reddy wrote in a 17 November 2020 letter to SCJ President Takaaki Kajita.

Many lawyers contend that Suga’s move is illegal under Japan’s constitution. But because SCJ is itself a government entity, it cannot ask a judge to overturn Suga’s decision, says Kanako Takayama, a legal scholar at Kyoto University and a member of SCJ’s General Assembly.

In the wake of that controversy, the LDP created a group to study SCJ and propose reforms. On 9 December 2020, it released a report proposing that the council, currently a “special organization” under the prime minister’s office but operating independently of the government, be made a separate legal entity. On the surface, this status would make SCJ similar to the national academies in the United States and in much of Europe. But the LDP panel suggested several legal frameworks that fall short of providing the autonomy enjoyed by those other science academies. For example, Japan’s national publicly owned universities were made independent legal entities in 2004, but they are still controlled by the government through oversight of funding and bureaucratic involvement in operations, Takayama says. Also, under SCJ’s current status, the government has no say in how the council spends its annual funding. If a revamped SCJ has to generate support by charging fees to the government or other entities for its advisory reports, politicians could pick and choose what topics to investigate. “Practically, the LDP wants to reduce the SCJ’s budget drastically,” requiring it to follow governmental directives to gain funding, Takayama says.

Few think the proposal is feasible. Private support for think tanks is “not in the culture of Japan,” says Kiyoshi Kurokawa, a former SCJ president. And such a change would require Japan’s legislature to amend the Science Council of Japan Act, Takayama says, something unlikely given the current controversy over the appointments. Takayama also notes SCJ’s budget is a fraction of that of national academies in other countries. SCJ gets about 1 billion yen ($9.7 million) in governmental support annually. For comparison, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine received $208 million in grant and contract revenue from government agencies in 2018.

SCJ does have critics within the scientific community. One is Hideaki Karaki, a veterinarian and professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, was a member of the council through the 2000s and served as a vice president. In recent years, the council’s advisory reports “have made almost no social impact,” he wrote in an October 2020 article published online by the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals. To become “a think tank truly useful for the society,” Karaki concluded, “the SCJ may have no choice but to become a private organization like science academies in the West.”

Karaki did note, however, that one recent council action has had some impact: its statement 4 years ago reaffirming a recommendation that Japanese academics refrain from participating in research with military applications. Because of the role that Japanese scientists played during World War II, SCJ has long urged researchers to distance themselves from military research. And it issued the 2017 statement in response to an LDP-backed plan for Japan’s Ministry of Defense to fund studies of dual-use technologies, which can have both civilian and military applications. The SCJ report “dissuaded scientists in universities from taking part” in such research, Hamada says.

Hamada and many other observers suspect the 2017 statement is the real source of the current tensions. Still, the LDP’s proposal has put SCJ on the defensive, and on 16 December 2020 it issued its own interim ideas for change in a report titled Toward a better role of the Science Council of Japan.

It identifies five areas needing reform. These include sharpening SCJ’s scientific advice, improving communications with the public, and making the member selection process transparent. As for SCJ’s legal status, the report suggests it shouldn’t be made a separate legal entity. It notes the council’s current form aligns with the roles of national academies in other countries in representing Japan’s scientific community, being stably supported by national funding, operating independently of the government, and having autonomy in selecting its members.

The SCJ report doesn’t appear to have blunted the LDP’s push for a new legal status. During a 24 December 2020 visit to the council, Shinji Inoue, Japan’s minister for science and technology policy, urged Kajita to continue to study the possibility that SCJ “should be an independent new organization in order to play the role of a national academy,” according to meeting notes issued by SCJ. The minister also asked that SCJ leaders move quickly to finalize reform proposals, perhaps so they could be considered in April at a meeting of the council’s governing assembly.

In the meantime, Suga has not budged on the blocked appointments. But Takayama says several of the spurned scholars are considering requesting an administrative review of the decision, and if that fails a legal challenge could follow.