Challenging the military involvement in science and technology

Launch of SGR report, Soldiers in the Laboratory

Houses of Parliament (Committee room 7); 19 January 2005

Main speakers:
Dr Ian Gibson, Chair, House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology
Prof Steven Rose, Dept. of Biological Sciences, Open University
Dr Chris Langley, SGR

Summary by Philip Webber


On 19th January, SGR launched its groundbreaking new report 'Soldiers in the Laboratory: Military involvement in science and technology - and some alternatives' at the Houses of Parliament. We assembled some eminent speakers for the event: Ian Gibson (Chair, House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology) and Steven Rose (Professor of Biology, Open University), as well as report author, Chris Langley. The event was chaired by Stuart Parkinson, SGR’s Director. Publicity for the launch had drawn a lot of interest, so the committee room we’d hired was packed with MPs, scientists, students and representatives from scientific institutions, peace groups, and the media.

Steven Rose described the report as “the most comprehensive document in this field in the last 35 years”, and called for the report to be used as a “platform for action”. Ian Gibson was also very complimentary and argued that this was the sort of report that science and technology groups should produce more often, with its policy-relevant and broad-ranging analysis.

Interest in the report has been very high. Media coverage of the report included prominent articles in Nature, New Scientist and The Guardian, as well as reports in more specialist publications such as Professional Engineering and even an appearance on BBC British Forces radio! Meanwhile, in the week following the launch over 300 copies of the report were downloaded from the SGR website.

The report itself, as Stuart Parkinson had explained in his introductory remarks at the launch, was the output of a one year research project documenting the power and influence of the military in science and technology in the UK. Little in the way of detailed investigation into this area had been carried out since the end of the Cold War so a report such as this was long overdue, he said. With the UK's involvement in Iraq continuing and UK military spending set to rise, the timing was especially appropriate.

Chris Langley then outlined the main areas covered by the report. The report’s scope spans the involvement of the Ministry of Defence (MoD), military corporations and other agencies from the military sector in UK science, engineering and technology (SET). Despite many difficulties in obtaining data, which is itself of serious concern, the report nevertheless documents how this military involvement exists within research, development, teaching and science communication, and extends across disciplines from engineering and physical sciences, through the life sciences into the social sciences. The scale of the influence is demonstrated by the fact that nearly one third of public funding of R&D (currently approximately £2.6 billion) is spent by the MoD, while 40 per cent of government scientists and technologists work for the MoD. Furthermore, representatives from military corporations dominate the official advisory panels on both issues of military policy and of military SET. In addition, large numbers of new SET initiatives have been set up in recent years involving UK universities in close collaboration with the military, the main ones being: Defence Technology Centres; Towers of Excellence; Defence and Aerospace Research Partnerships; and University Technology Centres.

The report includes extensive background on both the science sector and military issues. In particular, it looks at how narrow commercial agendas within SET interact with the extensive bias within security thinking of ‘superiority of military force’ arguments, marginalising wider social and environmental concerns. One of the main arguments which the report presents is the need for general acceptance and implementation of a much broader concept of security needs, encompassing many of the pressing challenges facing the world today, such as climate change, environmental degradation and a range of health and poverty issues.

Four case studies are presented to highlight the relationship between the military and science: biological sciences; nanotechnology; Missile Defense; and new nuclear weapons.

The central recommendation of the report is that the government should reallocate a large fraction (between a third and a half in the near term) of the funding currently devoted to military R&D to civil R&D that contributes to peacebuilding, addressing environmental problems and alleviating poverty at a national and international level. Other recommendations argue for an end to any R&D focused on the development of new nuclear weapons; restrictions on military involvement with R&D of emerging technologies, such as nanotechnology; and much greater openness concerning the Ministry of Defence's involvement in science and technology. The report also calls for professional scientific and engineering bodies to develop and implement stronger professional ethical codes in relation to the military, and encourages individual scientists and engineers to support attempts to reduce the military involvement in SET.

Steven Rose, in his comments, highlighted the long history of military involvement in UK science and technology, and noted in particular that the record of Labour governments in this area was little different to that of the Conservatives. He also pointed out the negative effect that military involvement can have on public opinion about science. He mentioned that he had, coincidentally, just been approached by the US military to collaborate in making use of some of his brain research — and that he would be declining the offer!

Ian Gibson, in his comments, pointed to the limited resources available for scientific work on issues related to disease, climate change, poverty etc, and referred to recent reports from his Select Committee — one on non-carbon fuels and one on science in international development policy — as examples. He argued that having a Science Minister in the Cabinet would be helpful in trying to get more balanced government science spending and better use of scientific and technical work by government. He also argued that the Research Assessment Exercise carried out across UK universities should include an ethical component.

The discussion which followed the speakers was wide-ranging covering issues such as: the lack of openness in science with a military/ commercial component; the complexity of the web of political and industrial forces involved in maintaining the status quo; the threat from biological weapons; the need to challenge the UK government over its nuclear weapons; and the exaggerated civil benefits of military R&D. It was pointed out that, while the Labour party in opposition had been pushing for industry to move away from the military sector, in government this policy has become simply the encouragement of military industry to develop civilian markets in addition to military work. There was also some discussion on trying to enthuse young scientists with ‘big’ environmental science/ technology projects in the same way that the Beagle 2 Mars probe had caught their imagination.

In his concluding remarks, Stuart Parkinson called on participants to help spread the messages in the report and support SGR in challenging the high level of military involvement in UK science and technology.