Rethinking security: from projecting power to preventing problems

The embrace of corporate partners by science and technology departments and the erosion of distinctions between the military and the police have been at the heart of disturbing security trends in the UK and elsewhere. The root causes of insecurity meanwhile go unaddressed.

Chris Langley
19 December 2013

Two trends over the past decade have played a pivotal role in shaping the UK security stance. Both involve science and technology. Both are fuelled by the neo-liberal view embedded in the western world. Though seemingly quite different, they are closely interlinked—and highly resistant to change.

The first trend is the increasingly commercial focus of the university, coupled with radically altered funding of teaching and research. Universities are becoming marketised businesses, keen to build links with corporate players and to view teaching as fundamentally a financial operation. Not every commercial partnership raises significant problems but many in UK universities appear passive in the face of profound, ideologically-driven changes whose extent and impact on the university ethos should be challenged. [1]

The second trend, which feeds on the commodification of research, is the erosion of distinctions between the police and the military—with a concomitant rise in the use by the police of high technology, such as unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) and other battleground forms of surveillance, the militarisation of crowd control in the face of protest and ‘disorder’, and the adoption of military ‘solutions’ for border and immigration monitoring.[2] Military strategies and operations have meanwhile grown more dependent on high technology and networked approaches—the so-called ‘revolution in military affairs’.

This trend is similarly dominated by market fundamentalism and the voice of the corporate sector, in the US and much of Europe as well as the UK. This can be seen in the expansion of drone use by the US and battlefield operations heavily controlled by IT systems.[3]

Such high-technology security stances tend to marginalise diplomatic and other ‘soft’ approaches to conflict and its resolution. Despite the 1961 warning by the then US president, Dwight Eisenhower, the ‘military-industrial complex’ not only increasingly sets the security research agenda but also helps instrumentalise threats to ‘order’ and their solutions. It dominates how ‘national security’ is constructed and even how it can be legitimately challenged.

One of the key bridges between these two trends is the science, engineering and technology research community in the university. This community interacts with expertise in the military companies and government entities like the UK surveillance centre GCHQ. Such interaction is facilitated by government initiatives and a wide variety of funding programmes.

Accountable science

Corporate involvement with UK universities is a fact of life today.[4] Despite concerns raised,[5] the research agenda and teaching of science, engineering and technology (SET) has become increasingly narrowly focused on economic end-points, influenced by powerful business interests. These are in danger of marginalising free inquiry and the pursuit of disinterested social and environmental goals.[6] In many areas of SET, teaching is dominated by short-term economic considerations which can stifle openness and thinking ‘outside the box’.[7]

A plethora of industrial ‘partnerships’ have been put in place in the past ten years, involving the military sector (government and corporate), the research councils and university research groups. Part of the impetus for involving universities with such research and development (R&D) is the privatisation of government defence laboratories, combined with cost-cutting in R&D in military companies. This process has been supported by funding and partnerships offered by the government and research councils.

The expertise that serves the military is largely lost to the general public good. And these commercial partnerships raise profound ethical questions for university researchers:

  • • compromise of objectivity, openness and freedom to explore areas of non-military interest;
  • • various forms of bias, as in the liaisons between the biotechnology, pharma and tobacco companies and research communities;
  • • a publication process lengthened by the need for security or commercial clearance;
  • • competing and conflicting interests, and
  • • limits to public oversight because commercial entities are not amenable to Freedom of Information inquiries.

Redefining security

In 2012 global military spending was estimated at $1.76 trillion (£1.09 trillion), around 2.5 per cent of global gross domestic product. The US remained the largest spender at $685 billion (£423 billion), with the UK fourth. BAE Systems in the UK was the third largest military company in the world, with profits of $2.35 billion (£1.42 billion) that year. BAE has many collaborative programmes with UK researchers and engages in training and outreach with universities and schools. This promotes high-technology versions of ‘defence’ and ‘normalises’ co-operation by university researchers with the military sector.

A new study by Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR), Offensive Insecurity: The Role of Science and Technology in UK Security Strategies, has shown using previously unavailable data that in 2008-11 76 per cent of the UK government’s military R&D budget went towards projects providing major ‘offensive capability’ or ‘force projection’. The largest projects aimed to deliver strike planes, long-range submarines, nuclear weapons and drones.

Similar spending patterns were found during the cold war and the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review and the National Security Through Technology white paper of 2012 indicated a clear intention to retain this focus. Such an approach does little to reduce the high rates of civilian causalities and the fuelling of international arms races, and more significantly fails to grasp the basic causes of insecurity and conflict.

UK R&D expenditure in the same period on tackling the roots of conflict included £626 million for international development and £179 million for renewable energy (reducing reliance on fuel from unstable areas of the world), with little policy-making across government departments connected to this research activity. By contrast, R&D spending on offensive weapons systems included £1.565 billion on combat aircraft and £991 million on long-range submarines (including their nuclear weapons).

This projection of power serves economic goals enshrined in neo-liberal ideologies while draining funding to preventative approaches to pressing problems like climate change, poverty and resource depletion which would build peace and security. Expertise in universities correspondingly tends to be locked into the high-technology approach and not available on a broad front to address long-term concerns for the wider public good.

The SGR report points out that savings of around £1 billion a year could be made in public R&D spending in the UK by adopting a less ‘offensive’ yet robust stance in defence, cutting the development of cold-war-style weapons systems. The associated procurement savings would of course be an order of magnitude higher.

More funds could thus be made available for technologies and other applications to tackle the roots of insecurity—for example, renewable energy to safeguard energy security and reduce carbon emissions, disarmament initiatives aimed at fragile states, and development projects addressing poverty and inequality.

This would require far more transparency on the part of the Ministry of Defence and its military contractors. There were significant gaps in the data that the authors of Offensive Insecurity were able to secure from the ministry. Nor is military involvement with UK universities subjected to oversight or scrutiny.

It is essential that the university research community participates in a public debate about the nature of corporate involvement in security and political decision-making in the UK and how alternative approaches to all forms of insecurity might be pursued. As Macarthur-Seal said in the editorial introduction to openSecurity, ‘What is needed, since it is our security that is at stake, is to open up the actions states take on our behalf to public debate and to provide a point of interaction between the relatively closed group of people who can be said to have any influence on the course of security policy and the great mass of people in whose name they act.’

[1] R Brown with H Carosso (2013), Everything for Sale: The Marketisation of UK Higher Education (London: Routledge); A McGettigan (2013), The Great Market Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education (London: Pluto); S Collini (2012), What are Universities For? (London: Penguin Books); Anon (2012), ‘Unfortunate oversight’, Nature 488 (doi 10.1038/488005a); Royal Society (2003), Keeping Science Open, policy document 02/03 (

[2] Described in the urban context in S Graham (ed, 2004), Cities, War and Terrorism: Towards an Urban Geopolitics (Oxford: Blackwell); S Graham (2011), Cities under Siege: The New Military Urbanism (London: Verso)

[3] M O’Hanlon (2000), Technological Change and the Future of Warfare, Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press)

[4] C Langley (2005), Soldiers in the Laboratory: Military Involvement in Science & Technology—and some Alternatives (Folkestone: Scientists for Global Responsibility,; C Langley and S Parkinson (2009), Science and the Corporate Agenda,; C Langley, S Parkinson and P Webber (2008), Behind Closed Doors: Military Influence, Commercial Pressures and the Compromised University (Folkestone: Scientists for Global Responsibility,

[5] For example, H Fearn (2008), ‘A penny for your thoughts’, Times Higher Education, February 28; A Stavrianakis (2006), ‘Call to arms: the university as a site of militarised capitalism and a site of struggle’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies 35: 139-54

[6] B Linden (2008), ‘Basic blue skies research in the UK: are we losing out?’, Journal of Biomedical Discovery and Collaboration 3, 3 (doi 10.1186/1747-5333-3-3)

[7] S Collini (2013), ‘Sold out’, London Review of Books, October 24: 3-12

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