Rapid expansion of defence research divides academics

Academics in Japan are bitterly divided over defence ministry grants to universities for defence-related research, with such funding receiving a dramatic boost this year amid declining general research budgets for universities over the past decade.

In a huge acceleration in funding from the defence ministry, subsidies for defence-related research in universities and institutions will increase from just JPY600 million (US$5.2 million) in 2016 to JPY11 billion (US$94.7 million) in the 2017 fiscal year which begins in April, and will for the first time include funding for large, long-term research projects over five years.

Some JPY300 million was allocated in 2015 – the first direct research funding from the defence ministry to universities since World War II.

Opponents say such a huge rise in defence-related funding raises concerns of political coercion of academics and universities, at a time when other sources of research funding have been dwindling.

Professor Takao Takahara, a peace researcher at Meiji Gakuin University’s department of international studies, says the importance of protecting autonomy in research cannot be stressed enough.

“The grants are supervised by the defence ministry and thus illustrate a clear bid by the government to include academia in national military development,” he said. Researchers were involved in supporting the Japanese military during World War II, “and that must never be repeated”, he said.

“Dialogue must be pursued over military solutions to defuse regional tensions,” said Takahara. The defence research increases are occurring against a backdrop of rising national defence spending linked to tension over conflicting territorial claims in the South and East China Sea that pitches Japan against China as the big regional powers.


Satoshi Ihara, secretary general of the Japan Scientists Association, maintains that “supporting [research] proposals by scientists whose research can be used by the Japanese military, and using the term ‘defence’ for such research would be ‘illegal’”. Such a “policy goes against the principles of the post-war peace constitution that rejects Japan being involved in wars”, he said.

The association has some 4,000 members including Nobel laureates, who advocate social responsibility in research. It is also a member of the Japanese Coalition Against Military Research in Academia, which is leading protests against the defence research subsidy programme – including political lobbying, street demonstrations and symposiums – to garner public support to revoke the subsidy programme.

“We are concerned that military research severely violates academic freedom because the achievements of military-funded research will not be open to the public without the permission of the military, which threatens the foundation of science,” the coalition says.

However, Takashi Onishi, president of the Science Council of Japan, affiliated with the Cabinet Office, told University World News the competitive research fund has been established for basic research which is “important for the protection and development of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces under the Japanese Constitution”.

Publications under this research category will be made public, he said, adding he did not see a need to ban the new research subsidy. He said, however, that “the government interprets Japan's peace Constitution as permitting a Self-Defense Force to protect Japan's security. This viewpoint clashes with [the views of] some scholars.”

Onishi is also president of Toyohashi University of Technology and in 2015 approved a three-year research project at the university for developing a protective mask against poison gas.

The influential Science Council of Japan, which includes some 2,000 top scientists, has been discussing whether to amend council statements dating back to 1950 and 1967 declaring “never to engage in military research”.

Dwindling research funding landscape

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s conservative administration launched the new subsidies in 2015 for universities and research institutions with the aim of strengthening Japanese defence technology.

Against dwindling national grants for academic research – an annual dip of 1% – the defence ministry fund will disburse JPY30 million annually for a research project, up to a record JPY11 billion this year. In 2016 some 58 applications from universities were received for the JPY600 million defence ministry research allocation, of which nine projects were picked for grants.

The Japanese Coalition Against Military Research in Academia is also concerned that the huge rise in the budget for military-related research coupled with a drop in the general research budget will distort research in Japan away from non-military research.

“Japan is on the way to forming a ‘military industry-academic complex’”, said a coalition statement on 28 December. It said this would “greatly distort national affairs”.

It could also blur the distinction between military and civilian research in important areas such as robotics and artificial intelligence if departments not involved in defence-related research within a university collaborate with departments receiving such grants.

Opting out

Despite the lure of cash, several leading private and national universities, such as Hiroshima University and Kansai University, have announced that they will not support applications for such funds by their researchers.

“We remain sceptical of the goals of this research programme. While the fund is officially for boosting deterrence, we are acutely aware of the dangers posed by the real use of research. Research for defence is likely to be linked to support military aggression,” said Kosako Manabu, head of the research planning section at Hiroshima University.

He said while gaining research funding is a priority, the university will adhere to its commitment to peace. Following the devastating atomic bombing of the city in 1945 by the United States, Hiroshima University strictly bans any link to military activities.

Japan, a charred nation, surrendered to western Allied Forces on 9 August 1945, ending World War II, after the second atom bomb was dropped in Nagasaki. Some 72 years later, Abe is pursuing a new agenda for Japan, with plans to change the peace clause in the Constitution while expanding the role of Japanese Self-Defense Forces to work in combat areas with the United States military.

The Defense Ministry White Paper of 2015 and 2016 states a need for Japan to beef up its defence capabilities and cites the North Korean nuclear missile threat to security in the region, and the rise of China's naval and military influence in Asia as priority concerns for Japan.

That policy justifies an increase in the defence budget at JPY5.1 trillion or 1% of gross national product – roughly the equivalent of national education spending.