Science council’s latest guidance misunderstands ‘freedom of research’The Yomiuri ShimbunThe latest statement issued by the Science Council of Japan (SCJ) may hinder the free thinking of researchers, thus further stagnating Japan’s science.
The SCJ, regarded as an organization representing the Japanese scientific community, has adopted the statement and report calling on universities and other entities to regulate research that could possibly be used for military purposes.
The SCJ has expressed concern that “scientific research and military affairs have shown signs of becoming close to each other.” Based on this, it has requested universities and others to establish a system to assess the suitability of research, so as to “maintain a free research and educational environment.”
Universities will check whether research funds have come from military organizations or not. If there is a possibility of a project being considered to have military purposes, it will have to be examined from technological and ethical viewpoints.
Such a measure will result in imposing new restrictions on research. Why do such restraints lead to “free research”? On the contrary, they could impede academic freedom.
It is only reasonable that some of the council members raised doubts at the general meeting of the council, saying that it is “very different from the voice of society,” and that “there are no standards for judgment.”
There is also a problem with the process of the council’s deciding on the statement and report. Despite the presence of dissenting opinions, the council did not discuss modifications and the like, on the grounds that it had already been decided on by the council’s executive board.
Discussing things thoroughly in light of diverse opinions is a fundamental principle of learning. We cannot help but say that the council, as a group of scholars, made a decision that sows the seeds of future problems.
Recognize dual-use reality
What the SCJ had in mind was the system for promoting security technology research, which the Defense Ministry started in 2015. The statement has presented a conclusion that “the government’s intervention into researchers’ activities will intensify.”
An official in charge at the Acquisition, Technology & Logistics Agency will visit the recipient institution once a year to check how the research is progressing, just as when research money is received from other ministries and agencies. That hardly constitutes an “intervention.” Also, the system covers only basic research, with recipient entities not restricted regarding public disclosure of the results or limited regarding the application of the results to products and so forth.
At research facilities, the system has drawn a great deal of interest. In an explanatory session inviting public applications for the system for this fiscal year, over 200 people, or at least four times more than the previous year, took part. There is a great gap in perceptions between the SCJ and those working in research.
There was a problem from the beginning with the “examination from technological and ethical viewpoints” sought by the council’s statement and report. Science and technology are essentially dual-use — meaning they can be applied for both military and civilian purposes.
The Global Positioning System (GPS), with its origins at the heart of U.S. military technology, has been used for car navigation systems. In addition to this, it has been widely used for purposes from observations of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions to self-driving technology. Rejecting it on the grounds that it has military implications is not realistic.
The present state of Japan’s scientific circles is not healthy. It has been pointed out that the number of theses written by Japanese scholars has not increased, with Japanese science falling behind internationally. There should be no new restraints established that would have a chilling effect on researchers.