The six scholars rejected for membership of the Science Council of Japan (SCJ) had publicly criticized government policy including 2015 laws

In a growing row just weeks into his tenure, Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was urged on Thursday by the ex-head of a key academic panel to reverse his decision to deny membership to six scholars who previously criticized government policies.

Suga’s decision to reject the academics, a break with precedent, has been seized on by opposition as a threat to freedom of expression, while polls show his voter support rating has slid.

The six scholars rejected for membership of the Science Council of Japan (SCJ) had publicly criticized government policy including 2015 laws to allow Japanese troops fight overseas, a historic shift for defense policy. The SCJ was set up after World War Two to provide independent scientific input for policy-making.

“If they are not being appointed because they opposed the government, this could limit their activities, restrict their freedom of speech and affect academic freedom,” Takashi Onishi, president of the SCJ from 2011-2017, told Reuters in an interview.

Onishi also scoffed at claims by conservative critics of the SCJ that its ties with a Chinese academic group risk leaks of sensitive technologies, and that its cautious stance on research into technology with possible military use hurts national interests.

Suga has said his decision had nothing to do with the scholars’ positions on government-backed legislation, defending the decision as appropriate without disclosing reasons for their exclusion. Typically the SCJ’s recommendations for membership have been approved by the serving prime minister.

In a recent poll, nearly half of respondents said they didn’t find Suga’s explanation convincing, helping to erode his support rating by seven points to 55% in the second survey since he took office last month following Shinzo Abe’s resignation for health reasons.

The SCJ itself has asked the government to explain and rescind the decision. More than 100 academic societies in Japan have issued statements criticizing the decision and opposition parties are aiming to grill the premier in parliament.

At the same time, the controversy has spurred calls by lawmakers in Suga’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) for reform of the Council, which gets around 1 billion yen ($9.50 million) in public funds annually.

Onishi said LDP calls for reform of the Council were a separate matter from the controversy over the appointments.

He also rejected an accusation by some LDP lawmakers and conservative commentators that the SCJ had ties to China’s Thousand Talents Program. U.S. authorities have said Beijing uses the program to entice foreign researchers to share knowledge with China in exchange for perks.

“The Science Council has nothing to do with the China problem,” Onishi said, adding that a memorandum of understanding with a Chinese academic group, the China Association of Science and Technology, had resulted in no actual exchanges. ($1 = 105.2800 yen)

Originally published at national post