October 9, 2020 at 12:45 JST
Demonstrators protest Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's rejection of six candidates for membership to the Science Council of Japan outside the prime minister's office in Tokyo on Oct. 3. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)
The government and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party are going all out to justify Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s decision not to appoint six candidates to the Science Council of Japan.
They are using twisted logic and distorting the point in question, which betray their inability to provide a convincing explanation about the policy.
When asked about the reasons for his decision by reporters, Suga did not offer a straightforward answer. Instead, he said the government discussed the council’s “necessity” when it reorganized ministries and agencies.
In a seemingly concerted move, Hakubun Shimomura, chairman of the LDP’s Policy Research Council, said the ruling party plans to set up a task force to review the panel’s organization and role.
The decision not to appoint six of the 105 candidates for the council’s membership clearly runs counter to the government’s past remarks in the Diet that it would not reject any candidate recommended by the panel.
But the government has failed to explain the reasons and insisted that the latest decision is not inconsistent with its past Diet remarks.
Alarmed by its own failing response, the government now appears to be trying to spin the narrative by creating the impression that the council is at fault.
In addition, the comments by Suga and other government officials include exaggerations and distortions.
Suga, for example, has said council members can appoint their own successors under the current system, suggesting that members are distributing posts among friends.
In reality, however, the council considers such factors as gender, age and geographic areas when it recommends new members.
In a report compiled five years ago, a government expert panel said the council’s membership composition has significantly improved due to its efforts to improve the selection process.
Shimomura has criticized the council for not submitting any policy recommendations to the government since 2007. But this is simply because the government has not asked for such recommendations from the panel.
The council has actually been active in offering its views to the public.
This year alone, the panel has published 83 proposals and reports on a wide range of topics, including digitization of education, organ transplants and regenerative medicine, and measures to deal with plastic waste.
The council’s tax-funded budget of about 500 million yen ($4.7 million), excluding operating expenses, is used to finance daily allowances and domestic and overseas travel expenses for members who attend meetings to compile these proposals and reports.
Saying all this is, of course, not to claim that there are no problems with the council’s management and activities that need to be addressed. The organization and its operations should be constantly reviewed for improvement.
But this has nothing to do with the appointment controversy.
Government officials have also made misleading comments about the issue of academic freedom.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato and others have repeatedly contended that Suga’s decision does not represent infringement of academic freedom. They maintain that researchers have the freedom to pursue whatever research they want to conduct without joining the council.
But there is no doubt that the six academics have been denied membership on the council because their publications and remarks based on their research have incurred the disfavor of the government.
Such an action by the government intimidates scholars and stifles academic progress.
We have no objection to efforts to promote in-depth debate on what kind of relationship science should have with society and politics, which is an important question of great relevance today.
Suga should immediately withdraw his misguided decision to reject the six candidates to create a conductive environment for such a debate.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 9
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