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Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Friday signaled his openness to efforts by the government as well as the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to re-evaluate the Science Council of Japan’s objective, a move that could backfire as the administration attempts to change the subject from the rejection of new members.

“There is much interest regarding the role of the Science Council of Japan,” Suga said Friday evening in a group interview with the media. “I’d welcome it if the way the Science Council of Japan should be, was improved by taking advantage of this opportunity.”

His remark follows the announcement made by Taro Kono, the minister in charge of administrative reform, earlier Friday that the government will scrutinize the council’s budget and membership quota. Kono argued that since the council’s source of revenue is government spending, it renders the organization the subject of its appraisal.

The administration also presented the case that the council, despite as stipulated by law, has not made policy recommendations to the government since 2010. Suga identified administrative reforms as one of his paramount policy priorities and tapped Kono, who has openly indicated his eagerness to become the prime minister, for the position.

“As far as (the council’s) budget and quota, I’m going to take a hard look at them without exceptions and limits,” Kono told reporters earlier Friday.

Likewise, Hakubun Shimomura, the LDP’s policy council chairman, said this week the party will establish a task force to assess the academic organization’s need for reform.

A series of statements has angered critics and disconcerted the council members that the administration appears to deflect the issue of not accepting the organization’s member recommendations.

The controversy threatens to puncture positivity toward Suga buoyed by optimism and high expectations for the new administration.

With reports emerging that the Prime Minister’s Office has actively intervened in the selection process of new members as early as 2016, along with a lack of a satisfactory response from the government, the prime minister is cornered into confronting an uphill battle barely a month after his inauguration. The opposition parties are already empowered to go after the administration in extraordinary Diet session debates starting later this month.

Suga came under fire last week when it was revealed that his administration did not appoint six academics — who were critical of then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s national security and anti-conspiracy legislation — to the council, openly breaking precedent that the prime minister nominates all scholars as recommended by the council.

The council, composed of 210 members representing the nation’s 800,000 scholars in nearly all academic disciplines, acts independently from the government but under the supervision of the prime minister. Half of the members are shuffled out every three years. The divergence has raised concerns that Suga is applying political pressure to retaliate against academics disagreeing with the government’s policies, thereby subverting academic freedom.

During the interview Friday evening, Suga revealed he had approved new members on Sept. 28 ahead of their term that started Oct. 1. When he made the decision, he said he had only seen a finalized list of 99 individuals and had not seen the names of the six scholars who were rejected. The prime minister, who made clear that the government will not reconsider its decision, declined to say whether they will be appointed in the future and quickly dismissed concerns that scholars’ political views are taken into consideration during the appointment procedure.

Suga, wearing a yellow tie and a navy suit, largely reiterated his or Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato’s statements on the matter, reading his prepared answers out loud in response to questions from reporters. The prime minister said this year’s appointment is not a decision inherited from Abe, and he is ready to meet with the council’s president, Takaaki Kajita, a 2015 Nobel Prize winner in physics, who is urging the government to reverse its decision.

The Cabinet Office this week disclosed a 2018 document stating the prime minister is not obligated to appoint the council’s recommended members, which critics characterize as contradicting then-Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone’s 1983 Diet testimony that the prime minister’s appointment is merely a formality.

Asked about the inconsistency, Suga insisted the government has not changed its interpretation of the 1983 view, and instead invoked the Constitution’s 15th amendment — that the people have the right to choose their public officials — to underscore that the prime minister has the discretion to install new members since they are elevated to public servants.

Recapitulating that the council is allotted a ¥1 billion budget annually and that the current framework essentially enables outgoing members to nominate their replacements, Suga yet again justified the appointment.

“I appoint (new members from) among those recommended by the council as the prime minister based on the law and confirmation from the Cabinet Legislation Bureau,” Suga said, explaining his rationale. “I’ve thought whether it’d be appropriate to follow the precedent of appointing all of those who are recommended.”

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