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Japanese academics warned to ‘think twice’ before taking part in military research

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Contrary to the gradual decline of general research budgets for Japanese universities over the past decade or so, funding for defense research has been on the rise.

Last year in particular, defense-related research saw a major boost when the government allocated 11 billion yen ($94.8 million) to the Defense Ministry for research subsidies to universities in the 2017 fiscal year, which is close to a 20-fold increase from the previous year’s allocation.

In response to the government’s increased interest in military research, the Science Council of Japan (SCJ) formed a committee to look into the relationship between academic research and national security.

In an interim report compiled by the committee, Japan’s scientists were told to think carefully before joining any research projects supported by subsidies under the Defense Ministry’s Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Agency, which is charged with overseeing the distribution of the allocation.

“The degree of the government’s intervention (in the research) is big,” said the report, as quoted by the Asahi Shimbun.

The report also noted that in 1950 and 1967, the SCJ had barred its scientists from engaging in research for military purposes, explaining that the council had issued such statements in light of scientists’ involvement in World War II, be it voluntary or forced by the military.

While there are those who may consider this warning a step towards infringing on academic freedom, the committee stated that in asking scientists to avoid conducting military research, it was merely encouraging self-discipline.

SCJ Chairman Takashi Onishi, however, expressed his disagreement with the interim report’s message, stating: “Research within the scope of the right to self-defense should be permitted.”

During the SCJ meeting where the interim report’s findings were presented, four out of the 12 attending members opposed the report’s contents, including Onishi.

There are also those who are against allowing the government’s political agenda to influence research.

Professor Takao Takahara, a peace researcher at Meiji Gakuin University’s department of international studies, told University World News that “the importance of protecting autonomy in research cannot be stressed enough”.

“The grants are supervised by the defence ministry and thus illustrate a clear bid by the government to include academia in national military development,” he said, adding that what happened during World War II, which saw researchers working with the Japanese military, “must never be repeated”.

“Dialogue must be pursued over military solutions to defuse regional tensions,” urged Takahara.

Several universities are already opting out from receiving the defense research subsidies, with top private and national institutions such as Hiroshima University and Kansai University announcing that they would not approve such funding applications from their researchers.

Kosako Manabu, head of the research planning section at Hiroshima University, said: “We remain sceptical of the goals of this research programme. While the fund is officially for boosting deterrence, we are acutely aware of the dangers posed by the real use of research. Research for defence is likely to be linked to support military aggression.”

The government’s military research expansion comes on the heels of rising tensions over territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas.

The full interim report is expected to be posted on the SCJ’s website later this month.

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