Taking a stand on defense research

A draft statement by the Science Council of Japan, the nation’s largest and most influential group of scientists, makes clear the organization will uphold its long-standing vow that scientists will not take part in military-related research. The draft also warns that the Defense Ministry’s program to provide funds to research institutions for the development of dual-use technologies risks increasing government intervention in scientific research.

The statement would have no binding power and it stops short of calling for abolition of the Defense Ministry program or prohibiting researchers from taking part in it. Still, it will be significant for the council to express the scientific community’s resolve to protect academic freedom and fulfill researchers’ social responsibility in the face of two major forces — the lure of research funds provided by the government and growing chances that the fruits of scientific research will be used for military purposes through the spread of dual-use technology. Members of the council, in a plenary meeting next month, should adopt the draft and fully digest its messages.

The SCJ’s earlier vows — a “firm determination” expressed in 1950 that scientists in Japan will never engage in research projects designed to achieve military purposes, and a similar statement issued in 1967 — were made to reflect on Japanese scientists’ past cooperation with the government’s war efforts.

The council launched a panel to discuss whether it should retain the vows in the face of the changing environment surrounding scientists, including the start in fiscal 2015 of the Defense Ministry program based on the Abe administration’s 2013 National Security Strategy, which stresses the need to combine government, business and academic efforts to upgrade Japan’s defense technology. The budget set aside for the program has been sharply increased — from ¥300 million in the initial year to ¥600 million in 2016 and shooting up to ¥11 billion in the fiscal 2017 budget. The government’s current science and technology basic plan, covering the five years from fiscal 2016, also calls for promoting research and development to meet the nation’s security needs through cooperation among the public, private and academic sectors. It has also been made known that the U.S. military distributed at least ¥880 million to Japanese scientists to perform specific research projects over a 10-year period starting in 2007.

While these developments risk distorting the direction of scientific research at universities and other public institutions — especially as the government cuts overall research funding to universities — some researchers have applied for and received the funding from the Defense Ministry. Takashi Onishi, president of the Toyohashi University of Technology and chairman of the SCJ, says scientists can take part in dual-purpose technology research if the results are going to be used “within the bounds of self-defense.” But the purpose of scientific research at universities is to nurture the development of science, and academic freedom is indispensable to that end. That would not be guaranteed if the scientists take part in military-related research, which by nature will require secrecy.

The SCJ’s draft statement correctly points out that in research projects funded by the military or by defense-related organizations, the government will intervene heavily in the direction of the research and its confidentiality. Researchers cannot be too conscious of the risk that participation in military-related projects will strangle their academic freedom and restrict the disclosure of research results — even though the Defense Ministry says it will not classify the outcome of research funded by its program or limit its disclosure.

The statement leaves it up to each university to set up its own guidelines and mechanisms to determine whether researchers should be allowed to take part in Defense Ministry-funded projects. University officials and researchers need to heed the warnings and risks highlighted in the planned statement. They should take a cue from the examples of several influential universities in the United States that reportedly follow a policy of not accepting research funds if research carried out with the money violates the principles of academic freedom and total information disclosure.

If the SCJ is against scientists’ participation in military-related research, it should discuss seriously how Japanese researchers can contribute to building international peace in nonmilitary ways, including promotion of cross-border joint science research projects. One example is the Synchrotron-Light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East, an independent laboratory created under the auspices of UNESCO and located in Jordan. Its founding members are Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey.

The government is boosting the 2017 budget for the Defense Ministry program by more than 18 times from the previous year at a time when many researchers at universities are facing a shortage of research funds. The government should instead increase funds for civilian-use research, as the ICJ’s draft statement says. That would contribute to strengthening the nation’s scientific foundation in the long run.