Photo/Illutration The Science Council of Japan holds its annual meeting on Oct. 1 in Tokyo. (Yu Kamata)

Is the Suga administration trying to emulate its predecessor, which sought to control organizations that should be independent and neutral by distorting the spirit of laws and abusing its appointment authority?

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has refused to appoint six of the 105 candidates to join the Science Council of Japan, which is known as “the national assembly of academics.” The panel recommended the scholars for membership on the basis of a related law, citing their “outstanding research and achievements.”

This is an unprecedented and outrageous political intervention in the council’s management that cannot be overlooked.

The council was established in 1949 on the basis of the lessons learned from bitter experiences in the prewar period when science was used for the war effort. Its missions include making policy proposals concerning science, promoting cooperation among Japanese and foreign scientists and enlightening the public on scientific issues.

The panel is an organization set up within the government, but it is defined as a special institution that operates independently.

The council has published reports and opinion on a wide range of issues concerning people’s life, either in natural and social sciences or in humanities. In 1950, a year after it was founded, and again in 1967, the council issued a statement declaring it will not be involved in scientific research for military purposes. Three years ago, it announced that it will continue upholding this principle.

But it is said that there is strong criticism and discontent against the council within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party as some members have taken exception to the government’s science and technology policy, including former President Juichi Yamagiwa, who is former president of Kyoto University, and current President Takaaki Kajita, a University of Tokyo professor and a co-recipient of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics.

The government has said nothing about the reasons for refusing to appoint the six candidates. Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato has only said he declines to make any comment on “personnel affairs.”

However, the six candidates have dissented, in varying degrees, from the Abe administration’s key policy initiatives, such as the enactment of new national security legislation and the state secrets protection law, as well as its attempts to amend the Constitution.

Many observers suspect that by refusing to appoint them, the Suga administration is trying to put political pressure on other researchers and the council to avoid criticizing government policies.

The move could intimidate researchers and threaten their freedom in pursuing academic research and communications with the public.

It is hardly surprising that the administration’s decision has been criticized as a violation of the Constitution, which guarantees academic freedom.

In 1983, the government told the Diet that appointment of new council members would not be affected by the prime minister’s intentions.

A later revision to the law has partially changed the procedures for membership appointments. But the principle of no intervention in academic research by the government should remain unchanged.

Suga should immediately withdraw his misguided decision.

The Abe administration’s strategy of keeping tight control on Kasumigaseki, the citadel of the nation’s central bureaucracy, through personnel appointments has bred the culture of “sontaku,” or the practice of acting to accommodate the assumed wishes and intentions of the powers that be, among bureaucrats, undermined bureaucratic ethics and deeply damaged the nation’s democracy.

Suga has publicly said bureaucrats opposed to the administration’s policies will be transferred. It now seems that under his leadership, researchers are becoming targets of the same strategy.

Suga should realize that the healthy spirit of criticism is vital for progress in academic research, and that there can be no progress in society without this spirit.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 3