Japan’s ruling conservative coalition won a landslide victory in national elections earlier this month, two days after the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who led the coalition until 2020.
Researchers say the coalition’s victory in the upper house of the National Diet will give it a mandate to continue Abe’s legacy of trying to boost the economy through cutting-edge technologies, including those with possible military applications. Some researchers are concerned about this, saying they do not want their work to be used for acts of war.
“We don’t know what kind of ethical standards will be upheld,” says Sayaka Oki, a science historian at the University of Tokyo. She says she expects government investment in research that can have military and non-military uses will continue.
Researchers are also concerned that programs that fund ‘dual-use’ research will sideline science that does not contribute to economic interests – and that some sensitive research may be classified. “Military research is not open to the public, it’s not a science for everyone,” says Morihisa Hamada, a volcanologist at Japan’s Agency for Marine and Earth Science and Technology in Yokosuka.
Ahead of the elections, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his Liberal Democratic Party pledged to increase investment in science and technology, including through tax breaks for private companies investing in research. They also pledged investments in areas of national priority such as quantum technology, biotechnology, artificial intelligence and regenerative medicine.
But the party also pledged to double Japan’s defense budget to 2% of gross domestic product, in response to security threats posed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and rising tensions with China. That money will likely go into the research sector through investments in cyberspace, deep space and ocean technologies, says Atsushi Sunami, president of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Tokyo, which promotes international cooperation. Sunami is also a government adviser on economic security and science policy.
Since the end of World War II, Japan has devoted itself to pacifism – a position enshrined in its constitution. But under Abe’s leadership, the government began to invest in research that could have military applications. In 2015, the Ministry of Defense’s Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Agency (ATLA) launched a fund for basic science, which now has an annual budget of around 10 billion yen (72 million of dollars).
And in May, the government enacted an economic security law, aimed at limiting exports of strategic technologies and securing supply chains. As part of this effort, it has earmarked funds worth around 500 billion yen for research. Economic security is basically about advancing dual-use technologies, says Sunami. These include improved radar systems to detect missiles, sensor technology to monitor the underwater activities of neighboring countries and new materials to increase computing power, he says. “We don’t use the word ‘military,’ but they clearly serve the interests of the military, now or in the future.”
Members of the scientific community have opposed the growing investment in dual-use research. In 2017, the Science Council of Japan, a representative body for researchers, issued a statement reiterating its commitment never to engage in research for military or war purposes. In support of the statement, many universities said they do not allow military research and will scrutinize all ATLA grant applications. Since then, applications for ATLA grants from academic researchers have plummeted.
Some researchers also argue that increased investment in government research priorities will impinge on academic freedom to choose the research that interests them. Making funding decisions based on public policy will lead to neglecting some areas of research, no matter how important, says Atsushi Sugita, who studies political philosophy at Hosei University in Tokyo.
But others say there is no evidence that increased investment in government priorities has diminished interest in other areas of research. Sunami says Japan has long struggled to convince the public to increase spending on science for science’s sake, even before the government began funding priority research areas.
It’s too early to criticize government funding programs for their dual-use potential, says Hideo Ohno, president of Tohoku University in Sendai. Almost all research can be classified as dual-use, he says, but that doesn’t mean it will serve military purposes. Quantum technology, biotechnology and artificial intelligence are all areas Japan needs to invest in, Ohno says.
Some researchers also fear that the investment in military research will introduce restrictions on the sharing of sensitive data. The projects supported by ATLA so far are still at the basic science stage and the results are publicly available – but “openness is not guaranteed”, says Hamada.
Sunami says that while open science is preferable, some research should be protected. Sunami is a member of the expert panel on economic security advising the government, which he says will meet soon to clarify which technologies it wants to prioritize for funding and to develop guidelines for when such research should be done. confidential.
Public support for increased defense spending may decline. Voter turnout this month was just 52%, suggesting that ruling party support may not be widespread, Sugita says. Abe’s assassination could also cause the party to withdraw its support for military-oriented policies, he says. This includes support for dual-use technologies as a means of stimulating economic growth – but it should be noted that these policies have strong support from industry, he adds. “We can’t be so optimistic.”