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Universities must resist the military industrial complex

Health professionals call upon British universities to take an ethical approach to research funding.

Last week, Medact, an organisation of health professionals that works towards a safer, fairer and better world, wrote to the Vice Chancellors of nearly a hundred British universities. We asked them to review the ethical standards and criteria that are applied to university research because some universities are conducting research that supports the maintenance and development of weapons of mass destruction.

According to a recent study conducted by the Nuclear Information Service and Medact, more than fifty universities — including Imperial, Cambridge and Bristol — have accepted research funding from the Atomic Weapons Establishment, the agency that maintains and develops Britain’s nuclear weapons. 

The Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) is a government-owned establishment. It is managed and run by a consortium of three private multinational corporations: the world’s largest arms company, Lockheed Martin; the scandal-ridden outsourcer, Serco; and the US-based Fortune 500 conglomerate, Jacobs Engineering.

In Medact’s view, university support of Britain’s nuclear weapons is indefensible. We should be working towards a global treaty that bans nuclear weapons as the only way of avoiding a global humanitarian and environmental catastrophe and to prevent further nuclear weapons proliferation. The idea that nuclear weapons keeps us (and the world) safer is a myth and based on delusional thinking. And they are an enormous waste of money. Our possession of nuclear weapons leaves us isolated from the majority of the world’s nations who are currently renewing international efforts towards a Convention that would make nuclear weapons illegal.

By supporting Britain’s maintenance and development of nuclear weapons, universities may be complicit in the violation of international treaties such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban treaties, both of which require states holding nuclear weapons to take active steps towards disarmament.

The disturbing links between the Atomic Weapons Establishment and some universities is part of a wider and deeper relationship between the military-industrial complex and universities. According to a study conducted by Scientists for Global Responsibility, military sector involvement in universities has grown in recent years.

Our study reported a lack of transparency by universities and the Ministry of Defence: the information supplied was patchy and lacked detail, and many key informants declined invitations to be interviewed. Scientists for Global Responsibility similarly found it difficult to obtain accurate data due to “incomplete record keeping”, “evasiveness on the part of officials” and “commercial restrictions”.

Some of the research conducted by universities for the military industrial sector is non-specific or ‘blue skies’ research with no direct or immediate applicability to weapons development; and some of it may serve useful purposes. For example, AWE support in the field of forensic seismology could help prevent nuclear weapons proliferation by improving the detectability of nuclear weapons testing across the world. However, the lack of data and transparency makes it difficult to assess the precise role of universities in weapons research.

This is additionally problematic because of the large and central role of private corporations in the military industrial complex; and the inability to assess the extent to which publicly-funded university research is also serving the commercial interests of private corporations.

Many charities and non-government organisations adopt ethical investment policies that preclude them from benefiting financially from arms companies. They do this because such companies profit from (and in some cases encourage) war, conflict, terror and violence; and because such companies have a tendency to corrupt. Shouldn’t universities also adopt a similar ethical code?

Jonathon Porritt (former Friends of the Earth director and current Chancellor of Keele University) said that our report shines a light on a morally-charged issue that universities and individual scientists need to grapple with. Universities should exist to serve the public good; and in a functioning democracy, their conduct would be open to greater scrutiny and public debate.

About the author

David McCoy is Senior Clinical Lecturer in Primary Care and Public Health at Queen Mary, University of London and Chair of Medact.


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