Scientists and Dual-use Technologies in Japan

Scientists and Dual-use Technologies in Japan
Photo Credit:Reuters/ 達志影像

What you need to know

Scientists in Japan are concerned with whether the results of their research will be used for the right purposes.

The Science Council of Japan (SCJ) has released an interim report about its panel’s discussions on whether it should amend or abandon its vow that scientists in Japan will not take part in military-purpose research. The discussions were spurred by the spread of dual-use technologies that can be used for both military and civilian purposes, as well as the launch of a Defense Ministry program to provide research funds to institutions for the development of dual-use technologies. On the question of whether scientists should take part in research whose results may be used for military purposes, the report only says that each university should examine the purpose, method and application of the research from technical and ethical viewpoints. The council should not only maintain its long-standing vow but also seriously consider how to uphold the autonomy and transparency of scientific research, which could be thrown in doubt by taking part in defense-related research.

The SCJ was established in 1949 for the purpose of having the fruits of scientific research reflected in the nation’s administration, industries and people’s lives. Despite its position as a special organization under the Cabinet Office, it carries out its mission independently. Its 210 members represent some 840,000 researchers in such fields as natural science, engineering, social science and the humanities.

In 1950, it declared a “firm determination” that scientists in Japan will never engage in research projects designed to achieve military purposes, reflecting on Japanese scientists’ past cooperation with the government’s war efforts. In 1967, it renewed the resolve by issuing a new statement, following the revelation that the U.S. military had provided funds to the Physical Society of Japan to help it hold an international conference the previous year.

But last April, Takashi Onishi, president of Toyohashi University of Technology and chairman of the council, stated the view that scientists can take part in the Defense Ministry’s program if the research results are used “within the bounds of self-defense.” The budget set aside for the Defense Ministry program has rapidly increased since its launch in fiscal 2015. The amount doubled from ¥300 million (US$2.6 million) in 2015 to ¥600 million in 2016, and the fiscal 2017 budget now before the Diet features ¥11 billion in such funds. Last May, the SCJ established the 15-member panel to discuss the matter. It plans to issue a final report in April.

The panel’s interim report issued in late January takes a cautious position over scientists’ participation in research in the domain of “military security.” It expresses concern over possible government intervention in the direction and confidentiality of such research. As for the Defense Ministry’ program, the report says the degree of government intervention in the research, including checks on its progress, will be high given that the program has the clear goal of using the research results for the development of defense equipment.

The report raises an important point — that it is difficult for scientists to control how their research results will be used. It notes that since scientists cannot completely control the “exit” of their research, they must make careful judgments at the “entrance.” The report’s warning applies to every kind of research, including research ostensibly for nonmilitary purposes. Scientists should realize that if they take part in research projects funded by the Defense Ministry, it will be all the more difficult or almost impossible for them to control the eventual application of their research results.

In that context, the report says that while defense-related joint research by a business and an academic institution carries the risk of reduced transparency, the transparency of a Defense Ministry-funded project will be even lower due to much greater constraints placed on scientists concerning both the research process and the use of its results.

The views of the council’s members on the issue are reportedly mixed. SCJ chief Onishi himself is facing criticism for his position that appears to contradict the cautious stance in the report. A researcher at his university applied for the Defense Ministry program in 2015 with a proposal for research on the development of a gas mask, which was accepted. Onishi says there is nothing wrong with the research because a gas mask is not an offensive weapon and can also be used to protect workers at chemical plants in case of accidents. Some may agree that participation in the Defense Ministry program is justifiable if the research results are used for development of self-defense equipment. But they should heed the words of caution in the report that defensive and offensive-purpose military technologies are often inseparable — and that results of scientific research can be diverted to military purposes — including offensive ones — irrespective of scientists’ intentions.

Among SCJ members, opinions calling for changing or dropping the vow against defense-related research are said to be strong among natural science and engineering scholars. Behind this are the cuts in government research subsidies for universities, resulting in a shortage of research funds for natural science and engineering departments. The government has meanwhile decided to set up a panel at the Cabinet Office to discuss ways to expand research on dual-use technologies involving the Defense Ministry and other government organizations, academia and private-sector research institutions.

Such policies combined threaten to distort the direction of Japan’s scientific research. To support the healthy growth of scientific research, the government should change its direction and take steps to boost funds for research to improve people’s lives — as the report calls for. As it points out, expanded government spending on defense-related research could place a financial strain on pure academic research and hamper basic research.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this editorial. The original can be found here.

Editor: Olivia Yang