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Will economic security law ensure “freedom of research”?

By Sakurai Rintaro and Abe Ryutaro


The point at issue in the Diet discussions on the economic security promotion bill is the extent to which the bill ensures “freedom of research” on advanced technologies. The government has said it will provide financial support to promote dual-use R&D on artificial intelligence (AI), quantum, and other fields, and there are concerns that the more the government is involved, the more there will be research projects conducted to fulfill government requests. 


Concerns about increased government influence on research


“Traditionally, the private sector has played a central role in Japan’s R&D, and most researchers are affiliated with universities or companies,” said Minister in charge of Economic Security Kobayashi Takayuki at a meeting of the joint research council of the Lower House Committee on Cabinet and Committee on Economy, Trade and Industry on March 29. In this way, Kobayashi indicated that collaboration with the private sector will be critical in developing advanced technology.


The bill designates advanced technologies prioritized by the government as “specified key technologies” and provides financial support for related research. The government defines the specified key technologies as those that, if used improperly or if are not available in stable supply, “may compromise the security of Japan and the Japanese people.”


Although the specified key technologies are not listed explicitly in the bill, it is assumed that priority fields for the government include outer space, oceans, quantum, and AI. For each project, a “public-private council” consisting of government officials and researchers will be established and the members will share information, including sensitive information, and engage in R&D with sights set on practical applications.


The technologies in question are “dual-use” technologies, which have both civilian and military applications. At a meeting of the government’s expert panel in charge of drafting of the bill, one attendee commented, “It is very important to keep researchers informed about the specific needs of the police, coast guard, defense, and other government ministries and agencies. The statement hints that the government desires to incorporate cutting-edge private-sector technologies in the security field.


Japanese universities have clearly separated academic research and military research since the end of World War II. In 1969, the University of Tokyo signed a letter of confirmation with its employee union, stating that “the university will not conduct military research or receive research funding from the military.”


The Science Council of Japan has also consistently been opposed to scientists’ involvement in military research, based on the fact that the council was founded out of remorse for scientists’ cooperation with the military during the Pacific War.


Because this kind of reluctance persists in universities and other research institutions, the government aims to use the new framework of “public-private councils” to encourage the participation of young researchers who are eager to study cutting-edge technologies.


The government will be represented in the public-private councils by delegates from central government agencies, such as the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, as well as by representatives from a research institute for advanced technology to be launched in FY2023.


The public-private councils can request cooperation from academia, including data and explanations needed for the R&D, and researchers are obligated to make their best effort to “respond to requests.” Researchers are required to maintain the same level of confidentiality as public officials with regard to sensitive information obtained in the course of conducting research. While research results are to be disclosed in principle, restrictions will be placed on how the findings are handled. The public-private councils will set the restrictions.


The government has already made moves regarding the financial support. It aims to create a 500 billion yen fund and allocated half of it (250 billion yen) in the FY2021 supplementary budget.


The more the government is directly involved through the sharing of sensitive information and provision of financial support, the more various restrictions may be placed on the research activities. This may make it impossible for academia to engage freely in research activities. (Abridged)

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