The Science Council of Japan, the nation’s largest and most powerful group of scientists, has launched a panel to discuss whether the group should drop its long-standing vow that scientists will not take part in defense-related research. That policy is an important principle that Japan’s scientists have upheld for decades in view of the history of academic institutions cooperating with the military during the nation’s past wars and the massive damage the wars brought to the people of Japan and other countries. The group should not tinker with the principle. Doing so would lead to a change in the basic nature of scientific research in this country.

The SCJ decided last month to set up the 15-member panel following heated discussions at a plenary meeting. Takashi Onishi, president of Toyohashi University of Technology and chief of the council, pointed to a changing environment surrounding scientists as the reason for reviewing the policy. After examining, among other things, what effects defense-related research projects and research funds supplied by the defense establishment will have on the nation’s overall academic research through discussions that will be made open to the public, the panel plans to reach a conclusion by the end of September 2017.

The council was established in 1949 for the purpose of reflecting the fruits of scientific research on the nation’s administration, industries and people’s lives. It is a special organization under the Cabinet Office but is to carry out its work independently of the government. It represents some 840,000 researchers in such fields as natural science, engineering, social science and the humanities.

In 1950, the group declared a “firm determination” that scientists in Japan will never engage in research projects designed to achieve military purposes. In 1967, it issued a similar declaration following a revelation that the U.S. military had provided funds to the Physical Society of Japan to help hold an international conference the previous year.

Recent decades have seen an expansion in research projects involving Japanese scientists whose results can be used for both military and civilian purposes. Beginning in fiscal 2015, the Defense Ministry has been providing funds to research institutions for development of such dual-use technologies.

The internet, drones, GPS and boil-in-the-bag food are the results of research projects originally designed for military purposes. Robots and artificial intelligence can have wide applications in the military field. It is becoming highly difficult to draw a line between military and nonmilitary technologies.

With a ¥300 million budget, the Defense Ministry in fiscal 2015 picked nine institutions for research projects to develop dual-use technologies, providing up to ¥30 million each. Four of the institutions were universities — Tokyo University of Technology, Tokyo Denki University, Kanagawa Institute of Technology and Onishi’s Toyohashi University of Technology. These and other institutions had proposed 109 dual-use technology research projects. The ministry set aside ¥600 million for funding in the current fiscal year. In May, the Liberal Democratic Party’s National Defense Division proposed expanding the funding budget to ¥10 billion as well as establishing a government panel to discuss security and science and technology.

The National Security Strategy adopted by the Abe administration in December 2013 calls for putting together the business sector, the government and academic institutions to strengthen the nation’s defense technologies, including dual-use technologies.

The funding is also coming from the U.S. military. According to a Kyodo News report, the U.S. military provided more than ¥200 million to at least 12 universities and research institutes in Japan from 2000 to 2015. Internal documents of the universities show that the U.S. forces are interested in such research subjects as carbon fiber composite material, which can be used in aircraft fuselages, and plasma-related technologies, which can lead to harnessing of nuclear fusion. Japanese teams have also taken part in robot competitions sponsored by the U.S. Defense Department.

Funds from the Defense Ministry and the U.S. military must be tempting for researchers at academic institutions, especially at national universities. Government funding for national universities’ operations, including research funds, was cut by about 10 percent over the decade through fiscal 2014. Instead of inviting the universities to apply for government funding specifically for dual-use technology research, the government should restore the reduced basic funding for the institutions to the earlier level.

Researchers for their part should recognize the implications of the dual-use technology projects. In allocating funds to research institutions for such projects, the Defense Ministry says the outcome of their research can in principle be made open. But it is unlikely that researchers will be free from the intentions of the defense establishment if they’re getting research funds from it. Such developments can undermine academic freedom and the autonomy of universities taking part in the projects. Researchers must remember that the ministry hopes to eventually use the results of such research projects for development of defense equipment. Once research results are actually applied for such development, they will likely be classified under the state secrets law.

The SCJ’s Onishi is of an opinion that basic research projects that contribute to the nation’s “self-defense” should be allowed within certain limits. His reasoning sounds either naive or like wishful thinking — since it’s impossible to distinguish between weaponry for defense and offensive purposes.

Researchers participating in projects funded by the defense establishment could sow the seeds for the formation of a military-industrial-academic complex that could become a difficult-to-control behemoth. The SCJ should seriously reflect on its 1950 and 1967 declarations, ponder researchers’ social responsibility and think twice about having scientists participate in projects that have military application.

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