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The Abe administration is stepping up efforts to lure researchers for projects whose results can be used for both military and civilian purposes by boosting the amount of government funding for which they can apply. The offer should be attractive to many researchers, particularly those at national universities who have seen a long-term decline in government grants.

University researchers, however, should think twice before applying for such funds, given their responsibility to protect academic freedom and their institutions’ autonomy, and to publicly explain the outcome of their research.

Eager to beef up the technological base of the nation’s defense system and defense industry, the administration in 2014 reversed long-standing policy and permitted Japan in principle to export weapons. In fiscal 2015, the Defense Ministry started a program to provide funds to research institutions, both academic and nonacademic, for development of dual-use technologies. The move was based on the National Security Strategy adopted in 2013 that stressed the need to combine efforts of the business sector, the government and academic institutions to strengthen Japan’s defense technology.

In the last fiscal year, research institutions proposed 109 projects under the Defense Ministry’s program, 58 of them from universities. With ¥300 million to burn, the ministry picked nine institutions — including four universities — to receive up to ¥30 million a year for up to three years for each project. This fiscal year, it doubled the budget to ¥600 million, and research institutions proposed 44 projects, 23 of them from universities. The ministry chose 10 institutions, of which five are universities.

The decline in the number of applications appeared to reflect criticism by academic researchers for participation in the program. The Defense Ministry, however, is seeking to sharply expand the program for fiscal 2017. As part of the record ¥5.168 trillion it is seeking in next year’s budget, the ministry reportedly plans to request ¥11 billion for this program — so that it can provide up to ¥1 billion annually for up to five years for each project. The policy is apparently in line with a call made by the Liberal Democratic Party’s National Defense Division’s in May for expanding such funding to ¥10 billion.

The U.S. military is also offering funds to Japanese researchers. An Osaka University researcher won $150,000 from 2013 to 2015 to develop laser technology, while another at the university was awarded $120,000 in 2014 for similar research, according to Kyodo News, which also reported earlier that the U.S. military had offered more than ¥200 million to at least 12 universities and research institutes in Japan from 2000 to 2015.

In view of changing public views on defense issues and the growing use of scientific research in the development of weapons and other defense equipment, the Science Council of Japan, the nation’s largest organization of scientists, representing some 840,000 researchers, set up a panel last year to discuss whether the organization should drop its decadeslong vow that scientists in this country will not take part in research projects designed to achieve military purposes.

The Defense Ministry says that the fruits of research under the program will in principle be available to the public. But researchers must bear in mind that research activities funded by the ministry, including compilation of research reports, will be under its strict watch. Portions of the research outcome that will be applied to defense purposes may be kept confidential, and the possibility of that happening will likely increase as the stakes grow higher with the rise in the amount of money being offered. If university researchers are involved, this kind of trend will undermine the academic freedom and autonomy of the institutions.

One problem with the program is that funding on offer for dual-use technologies is growing even as the government is cutting back on overall grants to national universities — ¥1.094 trillion in fiscal 2016, a 10 percent fall from a decade ago.

Thanks to the Abe administration’s weapons export policy, weapons developed with dual-use technology may contribute to killing people overseas. Improvement in Japan’s defense technology due to the Defense Ministry program may result in intensifying arms races and ratcheting up regional tensions.

Last year, Niigata University revised its code of conduct for scientific researchers to clarify that they will not take part in military-purpose research. The code includes a long-standing vow that scientists bear the responsibility for the effects of their research on people’s health and well-being, peace in society and preservation of nature. Other universities and research institutions should hold serious discussions on how scientists can contribute to society in an ethical manner.

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