Photo/Illutration Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga responds to a lawmaker's question during the Lower House Budget Committee session on Nov. 2. (Koichi Ueda)

The Suga administration appears to be running political influence in the science community by punishing several academics who are at odds with its policy agenda. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has failed to dispel this serious suspicion with his explanations on why he rejected six of the nominees to the Science Council of Japan.

The issue was the principal focus of the four-day sessions of the Budget Committees of both Diet houses that were attended by Suga and ended on Nov. 6.

Suga tried hard to avoid offering any convincing explanation about his decision not to appoint the six researchers on the council’s list of 105 candidates for Science Council membership. As he talked more about the issue, more contradictions and questions emerged.

The prime minister looked like he was cooking up one reason after another while hiding the real reason behind his decision.

He initially claimed the decision was based on a “comprehensive perspective while looking at the big picture.” Then, he started saying his intention was to secure “diversity” of the council’s membership in terms of age, birthplace and alma mater.

When someone suggested that rejecting those six candidates ran counter to diversity, Suga said that factor did not “directly lead to the decision.”

Suga even introduced new criteria for rejecting candidates, saying that action can be taken in cases in which the prime minister “cannot fulfill his responsibility to the public and the Diet.”

But there is absolutely no reason to think that appointing these six researchers, recommended by the council in recognition of their excellent research records and achievements, would qualify as such a case.

One of the six scholars has been serving on a government advisory council, even after the inauguration of the Suga administration. 

The administration deserves to be criticized for its extreme inconsistency of denying council membership to a scholar who has been asked to serve the government.

For many years, the government has told the Diet that it respects the council’s independence and that the prime minister’s only role was to “formally appoint” new members as recommended by the body.

Suga, however, has said the prime minister is not legally bound to appoint all academics recommended by the council, adding that this has been the government’s consistent view and it was endorsed by the Cabinet Legislation Bureau.

But an official document mentioning this view was created only two years ago.

Suga claims the position has been held since 1983, when the process of selecting new council members switched from elections to recommendations by the council. The government has been unable to produce older records that support Suga’s claim.

The document compiled two years ago was not presented to Juichi Yamagiwa, former Kyoto University president, who was president of the Science Council at that time. Although the government says it orally reported the contents of the document to Yamagiwa, he denied ever receiving such a briefing.

These developments suggest the government has effectively changed its interpretation of the law without announcing it.

Suga has also said advance coordination between the government and the council before the recommendations did not work.

But this statement is tantamount to admitting that the government intended to violate the council’s independence and should not be overlooked.

No matter how many times Suga repeats such explanations, they will never be convincing.
If the government wants to discuss the future of the council, it must regain its trust. Suga should candidly admit to making a mistake and appoint the six to the council. This is the only way to untangle the situation.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 7