Ethics teaching for science and technology students

Identifying potential cases to include in ethical curricula for science and engineering students - the military presence

Notes for a Symposium given by Dr Chris Langley, SGR in Copenhagen, Denmark, in April 2005


In April 2005, a follow-up symposium to the 1999 UNESCO World Conference on Science was held in Copenhagen, at the Center for the Philosophy of Nature and Science Studies at the University of Copenhagen, the Danish UNESCO Commission, Centre for Ethics and Law in Nature and Society, and International Network of Engineers and Scientists for global responsibility (INES).

Notes for the Symposium

I should like to warmly thank Tom Hansen of the University of Copenhagen and the sponsors of this symposium for inviting me to talk about the various ethical issues which follow from the military involvement with science, technology and engineering.

We have heard over the past two days about the plans underway to set up various courses for students to be exposed early in their careers to vexed questions of ethics. I should like to pose some questions which stem from the military investment and support of areas within science, engineering and technology over the last ten years. The kinds of questions which I think might be part of such courses are to be found in the handouts which I shall send around after my presentation and which I shall now briefly introduce to you.

Science, engineering and technology have been involved with military objectives in the wealthier countries for hundreds of years. The pace of the militarisation of science increased with the Manhattan project in the 1940s, continued in the Cold War period and has received a huge impetus, especially in the USA, in the response to international terrorism.

But it is essential to also remember that the universities in the G8 countries, especially the UK and USA, have too changed radically in the last 20 years. Universities have become commercialised players - research and teaching are expected to respond to economic targets and values. The change is complex but the expectation that research must be driven by business opportunities and end-points has opened the way to partnerships with military corporations and government defence ministries. All of these considerations raise a number of important moral and ethical questions.

The Scientists for Global Responsibility Report Soldiers in the laboratory showed that there is in the USA and the UK substantial military funding of science, engineering and technology, which supports a predominantly weapons-based, high technology military agenda. Since 2002 various 'partnerships' have been set up in the UK involving military corporations, government and to date 29 universities . These and other pervasive military 'presences' in teaching and research in the UK and elsewhere demand a full and informed debate. Such a debate would also call for students to be engaged with the ethical aspects of the military involvement with those disciplines that they are being taught and trained in.

A number of questions for such a wide-ranging debate and inclusion in teaching programmes include:

  • The most fundamental question being: Is the projection of power the most effective way to secure peace globally?
  • Almost all military corporations are implicated in some way with arms proliferation problems. This involves sales to governments with poor human rights and environmental records and to non-state groups. How does this impact on future career choices of those trained in science and engineering?
  • Is it always clear which universities, departments and research groups are supported by the military sector? Even the products of civilian research might be used in military contexts, often without the full support of either the public or members of the research community.
  • Does military sector support reduce openness to both lay and professional scrutiny of the sources, extent and uses of funds involved?
  • What limitations to freedom to publish are imposed by military funding? What obstacles are there for civilian take-up of products developed from military investment?
  • There is an increasingly complicated and difficult-to-resolve relationship between research for defensive and preventive objectives and that which is offensive and interventional.
  • In those areas of science and engineering which are becoming more militarised the free exchange of researchers and students nationally and internationally is made difficult as is clear from the USA. What impact might this have?
  • In many universities in the UK the consortia supported by the military sector are involved in the R&D phase of weapons systems and the growing so-called non-lethal devices. These consortia have a teaching element involving students and those registered for a research degree. What problems may arise in this situation?
  • It is increasingly difficult to direct expertise of science and engineering toward a broader and more inclusive security agenda - one that addresses social justice and environmental sustainability - when powerful military influence is involved. Indeed it is often not clear if the early stages of research will eventually have civilian or military goals. How will such problems be addressed?
  • The military funding of research and teaching can compromise intellectual property rights for individuals and universities, as well as limiting the potential for civilian uses of the products of such support and produce a markedly instrumentalist view of science. Does this matter?
  • The health of science and engineering depends upon a climate of free exchange of ideas and methods. It is important to have space for the 'dissident voice' - this has become problematic in the USA which has become highly intolerant of alternative discourse on a range of issues related to security. What steps should be taken to safeguard healthy dissidence in these disciplines?

It is imperative that students are exposed to a wide ethical curriculum - one that includes presentation of the growing military sector involvement within the universities and asks challenging questions about the resultant, often subtle, influences.