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Last week, in an unusual move, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga denied six nominees to the Science Council of Japan. The controversial decision has sparked speculation over the reason.

Critics charge that Suga is playing politics by turning down nominees with a record of past criticism of government policies and has set a dangerous precedent that will lead to decreased academic freedom. Suga’s defenders say the council is a government body, the prime minister has the right to veto membership and that none of those who were rejected will be less free to pursue their academic interests. But the way the council chooses its members has also prompted criticism and calls for reform from supporters and opponents of the decision.

What is the Science Council of Japan?

The council was established in 1949 and is the representative organization of the scientific community — not just those pursuing natural and life sciences, but also the humanities, social sciences and engineering. It consists of 210 members who are appointed and another 2,000 members who are elected as the representatives of approximately 840,000 scientists nationwide.

The council’s purpose is to debate and offer solutions to the important scientific issues of the day. This includes providing policy recommendations to the government, promoting scientific literacy nationwide and building personal networks among its members. The council is also involved in international activities and is affiliated with international organizations involved in everything from Antarctic research to the history and philosophy of science.

The council’s budget comes from the central government (the fiscal 2020 budget is about ¥1.05 billion) and members are national public servants employed for special service — they receive some expenses for their activities. An appointed member’s term is for six years, and half of the body is appointed every three years.

How are members appointed to the council?

To become one of the 210 appointed members, a nominee must first satisfy other council members that they have achieved excellent accomplishments in their academic research or career. Their name is then forwarded to the prime minister for appointment.

Does the prime minister have the authority to reject recommendations?

This is the subject of contention over the six who were rejected. In the council’s charter, it says that the council has the right to nominate a researcher or scientist and then, based on those recommendations, the prime minister will appoint them. But the language of the charter says nothing about under what conditions the nominee will be accepted or rejected by the prime minister.

In 1983, then-Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, commenting on appointments to the council, said that the government’s role in the appointments was just a formality. This created an expectation among council members that their recommended nominees would be rubber-stamped by the prime minister.

So why did Suga reject the six members?

At a news conference to explain his decision Monday, Suga said that the council members were public servants receiving public money. Asked whether it was a good idea to simply follow precedent by automatically appointing nominees, he defended the decision as legitimate and one made based on the overall record of the nominees.

While acknowledging the position articulated by Nakasone in 1983, Suga said the model for nominations was changing from what it was in 2005, when it was based on the council’s collection of recommendations that came from registered academic associations, to one based on the council’s direct recommendation of individual names. He did not address the six individual cases but said his decision had nothing to do with the question of academic freedom.

On Tuesday, the government released a 2018 position by the Cabinet Office that said although it is necessary to give sufficient respect to the council’s recommendations, the prime minister is not obligated to automatically appoint council-recommended nominees. The 2018 position also stated that the prime minister is the one with the authority to appoint members to a body that is a government organ, and does have a degree of supervisory authority over the council’s personnel matters.

Of the six who were denied, all are in the social sciences or humanities, and all have publicly opposed key policies of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, under whom Suga served as chief Cabinet secretary. Suga, in turn, denied any connection at Monday’s news conference between their opposition to past government bills and his rejection of their appointments. But the rejection has led to charges that the government is cherry-picking experts who agree with its policies, and created fears that the council will become a collection of yes-men and women who will tell the government what it wants to hear rather than provide advice based on the best scientific research.

The decision’s defenders point out that other appointees have criticized past government policies, and that being excluded from the council doesn’t mean one is being denied the right to pursue their academic interests.

What is likely to happen next?

Opposition parties are likely to grill the government over how and why the decision to reject the six was made, and the decision’s legality, already being questioned in the media, could be challenged in the courts.

At the same time, the rejection has put the spotlight on the council and the way it operates. Calls for greater transparency and accountability on how appointed candidates are nominated are being heard from both supporters and opponents of Suga’s decision, and could also lead to Diet debate on how to reform the council.

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