Science and the military: A reply to Nature

Letter to Nature, 14 October 2011

Nature’s special on science and the military (Beyond the bomb’; Nature 477; 2011) unfortunately gives too partial a perspective on several key issues.

While lamenting the recent fall in the Pentagon’s core spending on science and technology (p.369 & p.386), there is no acknowledgement that the Pentagon’s total research and development spending remains over $75 billion a year, the vast majority of which goes towards developing weapons and other military technologies. This expenditure represents more than 50% of the total US government R&D budget. The Pentagon’s huge spend fuels an international arms race which, in many ways, undermines global security.

During the course of the last century, military R&D created weapons of increasing lethality to the point at which millions could be killed with a single (nuclear) weapon. In recent decades, the R&D effort has increasingly shifted to include the creation of ‘smart weapons’ in pursuit of the ideal of the quick, clean war. But the wars since the 9/11 attacks have starkly demonstrated the illusionary nature of this goal. The focus of security R&D needs to fundamentally shift – to have a clear emphasis on tackling the roots of armed conflict and terrorism. Such work is predominantly civilian in nature.

The huge military R&D spend has also diverted resources – both financial and human – from other important areas of science and technology. Nature pointed out some of the areas where military-funded dual-use research and spin-outs have led to civilian applications, but given the huge budgets, arguably a more salient question is: why not more? Spend tens of billions of dollars in any realm of science and technology and many applications well beyond the original field of work can be created. The promise of spin-outs is not a good reason to preserve disproportionately high spending in any area of science and technology. A further problem with many technologies with both military and civilian applications is the way in which they can lead to weapons proliferation. It was good to see this issue covered in the article on military robotics by P. W. Singer (p.399).

Surely, though, the key unasked question is: why should we allow the military to have such power in deciding the agenda for research and development? The wide range of problems that face societies across the world – from poverty to climate change and biodiversity loss, from economic instability to food and energy insecurity – need input from scientists and technologists that have a diverse base of funding and accountability.

For all these reasons, the huge influence of the military within the funding of R&D needs to end.


Dr Stuart Parkinson
Executive Director
Scientists for Global Responsibility, UK

Note: Nature declined to publish this letter - however, an abbreviated version was added to the appropriate comments section on their website.