Don’t Let Discussions on Reform Ramble on Aimlessly

It is hard to say the Science Council of Japan played a sufficient role in the nation’s response to the Great East Japan Earthquake and the COVID-19 pandemic. Many issues lie ahead that require scientific knowledge, such as how to cope with generative artificial intelligence (AI).

The SCJ needs to be reformed to adequately address such issues. However, as the government decided not to submit a bill to amend the Law on the Science Council of Japan to the current Diet session, the reform, including a review of how council members are selected, has been left in limbo.

Currently, the SCJ selects membership candidates based on recommendations from current members. However, this method has not been successful in increasing the number of women, younger people and people from industry. As a result, many people have argued that the SCJ has been unable to make timely policy proposals.

It is unacceptable that nearly ¥1 billion in state funds will continue to be injected into the SCJ every fiscal year while its reform remains in limbo. The SCJ needs to be overhauled into an organization that is fit to be a representative body of scientists.

According to a Yomiuri Shimbun report, the government decided not to submit the bill because it is wary of political disruption possibly being caused by a reaction such as a mass resignation of SCJ executive members, who oppose the law revision.

It would be a disgrace if the government has prioritized such a political decision and delayed an overhaul of the SCJ that should have been implemented. It is disappointing that the Diet has lost an opportunity to discuss reform from various perspectives.

The SCJ has called on the government to hold discussions together with experts. However, the bill had been prepared based on requests from the council side. It is not a matter that needs to be discussed again. It is necessary to avoid wasting time on aimless reform discussions.

If the SCJ continues to oppose the bill, the government should turn the council into a private corporation, such as a special corporate body that is independent of the central government. It is hoped that a conclusion will be reached by next year’s ordinary Diet session at the latest.

The SCJ’s stubborn refusal to reform is hard to understand.

In February this year, the SCJ sent a letter to major science academies in Group of Seven countries. The letter sought support from the academies, stating that political pressure will undermine the council’s “scientific freedom.” With Western support behind it, the SCJ may have been trying to get the Japanese government to abandon the reform plan.

In response, however, the United States’ National Academy of Sciences said, “It would be inappropriate for foreign science advisory organizations to interfere in an internal Japanese discussion,” while acknowledging the importance of the independence of academic societies. This might have been the organization’s way of cautioning the SCJ, which seemed to expect foreign academies to agree with it.

The SCJ seems intent on using “external pressure” to push its own agenda through, but that is not what academics in the pursuit of truth are supposed to do.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, May 27, 2023)