National

Defense Ministry's push to fund research into dual-use technologies sparks ethics debate among scientists

by Miya Tanaka

Kyodo

After losing World War II, Japan decided to pursue pacifism under a war-renouncing Constitution, and its scientists vowed to avoid military research in repentance for cooperating with the military.

But this long-held position is being complicated by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s policy of luring universities into developing dual-use technologies at a time when regional security is undergoing rapid changes.

To push universities in that direction, the Defense Ministry’s technology agency set up the National Security Technology Research Promotion Fund with ¥300 million ($2.7 million) in fiscal 2015 to finance basic research into technologies with both civil and military applications.

The initial move was considered modest compared with Japan’s total R&D expenditures, but it prompted a debate in the Science Council of Japan, which represents the scientific community, on how to position itself against research with military dimensions. This led it to renew its pledge, made in 1950 and repeated in 1967, that Japan’s scientists would never engage in studies “for the purpose of war.”

In March, the Science Council brought up the Defense Ministry’s new fund again in a statement that said it has “many problems” with the nation’s ability to soundly produce science, due in part to “significant government intervention” in research.

Opponents have said the statement effectively urges universities not to apply for money from the Defense Ministry’s fund. Even before the statement’s release, the controversy caused applications from universities, companies and other entities to plunge to 44 in fiscal 2016 — less than half the number received in the first year.

But whether applications will continue to drop remains to be seen: The Defense Ministry decided to dump ¥11 billion into the fund for fiscal 2017.

Researchers are also grappling with the question of how “military research” should be defined, given the increasingly blurry line between civil and military technologies.

“I believe there will continue to be scientists who will apply to the fund on the grounds that it is offered for basic research (and not for the direct development of defense equipment),” Ryo Kato, an assistant professor at the state-run Toyohashi University of Technology, said in a recent phone interview.

The 43-year-old chemist is one of the first batch of researchers to receive backing from the National Security Technology Research Promotion Fund. He is currently working on developing a nanofiber sheet that absorbs toxic gas and received ¥12 million in financing for a three-year period from fiscal 2015.

While the ministry might be hoping to use his research to develop a better gas mask for the Self-Defense Forces, Kato said his aim is to meet civilian needs by making disposable products that can be casually used by workers at factories and construction sites.

“I also think there is little chance that the technology will be used in a weapon to kill or harm anyone,” he said, explaining why he thought his studies would not go against the science community’s stance against defense research.

Still, Kato admitted that the Defense Ministry was not necessarily his first choice for funding. He was worried the contents of “military-linked” studies would be subject to high confidentiality, which contradicts the perception at universities that their mission is to conduct studies openly for social benefit.

Of all the places he applied to, the Defense Ministry’s program was “the only one that offered me financial support,” he said.

Kato later found his initial concerns were groundless, at least in his case, because the ministry told him to be open about the outcome and he felt no intervention by those overseeing his project.

Tsutomu Iida, a professor at Tokyo University of Science, said he found no difference between the Defense Ministry funds and grants-in-aid provided by the science ministry, saying both backed the development of basic technologies.

“I couldn’t find any particular reason to exclude funding just because it comes from the Defense Ministry,” said Iida, 50, who receives subsidies both from the defense and science ministries for his studies on thermoelectric technology for converting heat into electricity.

This technology is studied globally as a way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from car engines, which use only a portion of the energy generated from gasoline. The rest is lost as heat. This technology could be applied to improve tanks, but Iida said the Defense Ministry’s funds only cover his research into thermoelectric batteries to be used in ordinary vehicles.

Opponents have sought to extend their influence in the academic community, but Seigo Hirowatari, an emeritus professor at the University of Tokyo, said after attending a related symposium in Tokyo in late June that scientists are still “split over this issue.”

Critics say the Defense Ministry is taking advantage of universities that are struggling from cuts in state subsidies, leaving scientists no option but to look for alternative funding sources such as the Defense Ministry and the U.S. military.

But Hirowatari, a former head of the Science Council, said it may be more than just a funding shortage that is bringing academics and defense bureaucrats closer together.

“There is a certain portion of the scientists who believe they should carry out military studies as long as it is for the purpose of the nation’s defense,” he said.

The Abe government’s hawkish position on security may be giving a boost to such arguments. The SDF has been given wider leeway to defend Japan under divisive new security laws that loosened the constraints imposed by war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution.

Takashi Onishi, the current president of the Science Council of Japan and head of Toyohashi University of Technology, said he hopes that a more in-depth debate will take place in the council on whether certain types of scientific research for defense purposes should be allowed.

Onishi said the sensitive topic was “left to the discretion of universities or research institutions” in working out the latest statement — the first of its kind in half a century — and it means there is a need to continue with the discussions “in the context of the actual situation.”

“We didn’t have the SDF in 1950 (when the council first vowed not to engage in scientific research for war purposes), but now 90 percent of the public is supportive of the SDF and apparently accept the SDF’s current level of defense capability,” he said.

Onishi played down concerns that allowing research for the national defense will undermine the scientific community’s antiwar stance. Researchers at his university, for example, will have to undergo screenings to determine the potential military applications of their work, he said.

“There are certain studies our Constitution does not permit in the first place, like proposing a new way to make atomic bombs. . . . As for dual-use technologies, we should check each case,” he said.

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