It’s an unavoidable fact that, historically, war influences science. Defence spending and the money going towards military scientific Research and Development (R&D), increases greatly during times of conflict. As well as defending the country during these periods, many useful technologies that we still use today were invented by our best and brightest, in the name of military research. However, how necessary is a high military R&D budget in a peaceful world where many overlaps between military and university-based civilian R&D now exist?
The overlaps between R&Ds is a direct result to the UK’s approach to modern military thinking, characterised by a concept known as Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). Originating in the 1970’s and 80’s, this concept proposed that most major advances in military power came about as a result of new technologies spurring different ways of thinking. This made people think of strategies in a new light and so military science would go through a rapid expansion before ebbing once more. This bears many hallmarks of scientific ‘paradigm shifts’, where the introduction of a new technology or idea, combined with a difference in way of thinking, spurs a burst in ‘new’ thinking.
Renewed interest in RMA and the tie of military success to technology came after the Gulf war, where the U.S. military’s speed, precision and low casualty rate stood out compared to the, not numerically insignificant, technologically inferior Iraqi army. RMA has since directly influenced thrusts of military research, with the Ministry of Defence strategy emphasising computer systems and nanotechnology, along with more sophisticated aircraft, watercraft and drones. This is all indicative of the direction warfare is taking- using fewer munitions and soldiers, whilst attempting to increase lethality, efficiency and precision. However, a great many of these technologies are already being researched by civilian R&D sources in universities, calling into question whether one kind of R&D is inherently better than the other.
The easiest starting point is the allocated resources to each. Money is required to fund research, and in 2014 the UK spent £11 billion on civilian science, engineering and technology research. It conversely spent a total of £1.7 billion on military R&D for the defence of the country. This military R&D budget constitutes almost 20% of the total R&D budget of the UK, and employs 160,000 permanent scientists, engineers and support staff.
This 20% is already a hefty sum of money for military-only R&D- however, one of the biggest arguments that the supporters of military investment tout is that, like all science, one of the biggest advantages of a large military R&D budget are so called ‘Spin-off’ technologies. Spin-off technologies are technologies that military funding has secured and can be used in civilian life, such as the modern examples of nuclear power, jet engines and the modern computer, but this argument is inherently flawed. Adapting military technology for civilian use introduces an unnecessary, and costly, middle man. Military technologies are designed to be used in extreme situations by trained professionals and, rather than adapting such a technology, there is no reason why we should not be able to put money into the civilian sector to produce these technologies directly. The money in the civilian sector also produces technologies that ‘spin-in’ to the military, the most notable example being the internet, one of the most used technologies by the military-industrial complex.
It is to be noted that the ‘Spin-out’ examples given above all came about in war time. Spin-out technologies that generate a large degree of traction only occur when military R&D spending is incredibly high, such as that in war time. During WWII, the budget of defence for the UK was over 40% of the GDP, a colossal sum compared to the 6% spent on defence today. Whilst the costs of the war were unavoidable, the technologies that came with that defence would likely not have been left undiscovered if the war had not happened. If 40% of the UK GDP had been spent on civilian R&D instead, then there is a good chance that these technologies would have been discovered regardless of the wartime situation, and perhaps with greater scope for application than just those in war.
Going beyond national concerns, there is perhaps an even more insidious effect that Military R&D has on science as a whole, and that is a reduced openness in scientific research. When one nation discovers a critical piece of military technology, they want it hidden from all but their most trusted allies. This encourages an air of secrecy that stymies the scientific process by making information unreadily available to be checked critically under scrutiny, ultimately hurting science as a whole in the long run.
Given this encouragement of close-mindedness and a discouragement of freedom of information for peer review, we would expect universities and academia to be opposed to Military R&D, however this is not the case.
Universities, which are supposed to be bastions of free scientific thought and are often the first to be critical of those in power, are becoming increasingly commercialised in the modern world. This is to encourage growth in the UK economy, make useful business connections, produce skilled workers and create spin-out technologies. This ‘business model’ has unfortunately led to universities collaborating with ethically dubious sources, and ultimately putting less of an emphasis of the role of a university as being centres of thought and education and more as a service where the student is the customer.
So, whilst already under scrutiny from commercial interests, university researchers have it even worse when it comes to military research. As this report by Scientists for Global Responsibility outlines, 43 major universities were approached, and it was found that 42 members of the sample received funding from military institutions for research projects, averaging around £2 million per year, with the majority of this research being in the fields of the physical sciences. Freedom of information requests to the directors or vice chancellors of these projects were made, asking about the military funding they received, however these requests were repeatedly ignored. This lack of transparency from military sources is nothing new, and makes universities, publicly funded institutions, seem biased towards the military’s ways of thinking.
University staff were extensively interviewed and many felt like there wasn’t enough transparency with the research, feeling that the research was “making them become more ‘conformist’, less open and accountable, and less able to address ethical issues”. On the suffering of their research, the researchers felt that they were “not able to express their concerns openly”. Given the significant pressure now on academics to secure funding, turning to commercialised entities and the military may appear to be an attractive draw for some, or at the very least the same as any other source of income to keep a job. The issue comes from those who would like to object on scientific or ethical grounds, where the government can just apply pressure- if you don’t get the funding, your department will get closed. Given this sort of atmosphere, it’s no wonder that the researchers felt unable to express their concerns and why many have been bullied into silence.
Whilst academic concerns brought on from military R&D may only be of interest to researchers and academic institutions, the economic problems that are generated are a concern to taxpayers in the nation as a whole.
Military R&D has been found to not be an important factor in helping a country’s economic growth, as the jobs that would have been used in high complexity engineering and research can be reapplied elsewhere in the civilian sector. Even the MoD backs up this argument, stating that a planned cut in military R&D in 2001 would generate 30% more jobs as the highly skilled scientists and engineers would go elsewhere and create new start-ups. Unfortunately, the MoD only seems to be transparent about its practices when it has good news to tell, and is rather tight-lipped for most other things.
Indicative of how non-transparent military R&D institutions are, when MoD accounting practices were broken down it was found that they were unable to provide a breakdown of an entire annual quarter, leading to £500 million of their £1.7 billion budget being lost to the ether. Assuming that nothing shady is going on, this opacity is ridiculous when 30% of an allocated budget is lost due to poor accounting practices that cannot be investigated or freedom of information requests responded to without the permission of the government.
The defence budget is supposed to go towards defending the nation, but 76% of UK military spending is spent on an offensive capability, ‘projecting force’ either at home or abroad. A great many people opposed the overseas wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and at least £1 billion could be saved by cutting down on the emphasis of a predominantly offensive and interventionist army and instead putting the money into areas of interest in either civilian R&D, individual defensive strategies of interest and other areas of conflict prevention.
Conflict prevention does not necessarily involve violence. As time has gone on, the world has gotten more peaceful, a trend that has come about due to educated peoples in democracies willing to make peace agreements and go for the olive branch rather than use the gun. The ministry of defence is responsible for more than war- the defence of our borders also includes climate change, natural resource security and food security amongst others. The MoD has stated that these considerations are a priority  but, despite this claim of being a priority, the military R&D budget that was spent on these subjects was a paltry 14% of the total budget. This calls into question the ‘priority’ that the MoD gives to these fields, and these are areas which the MoD could be spending money without furthering conflicts, making them perfect candidates for areas that could be expanded under civilian R&D.
Inherently, science does better in the face of co-operation and friendship. Two of the most famous scientific excursions ever made, the Apollo programme and the International Space Station, both put people into space, but occurred under drastically different circumstances. The US-based Apollo programme received incredibly high funding in the spirit of rivalry with the USSR in the middle of the cold war, coming to a cost of over $100 billion. In comparison, the International Space Station was funded predominantly by the same two countries that were once rivals, reaching a cost of over $160 billion and, unlike the Apollo programme, the ISS is still running, doing scientific experiments and is a testament to what people can achieve when they co-operate. If we cannot learn to co-operate with one another, we risk regressing to a state like the cold war, where investments in military R&D went straight into the nuclear infrastructure and only generated an atmosphere of fear in the world as the nuclear arms race swept the ‘developed’ nations. We’re feeling the effects of this even now, where nuclear weapons are seen as the ultimate weapon of national security, something to strive towards in the name of safety, but only making for a more dangerous world.
The main point of military R&D is to research security for a nation and to protect its people and I don’t think that such spending should be reduced to zero. I only recommend that when there is an overlap by what can be achieved with civilian and military R&D, it is better for all involved for the idea to be developed in a non-militarised environment. It encourages people to be open about their research and allow it to be useful for all and not just a select few in a very narrow application. This trend of military R&D money being transferred to civilian sources has been going on since the end of the cold war and looks to continue unto the future. The biggest challenge we face going into the future is to ensure that publicly funded universities are kept separate from military resources, to avoid an unjust military influence on researchers and science as a whole. This responsibility lay in the hands of the government, the institutions they fund and the researchers that work for them, requiring the co-operation of all to develop a potentially brighter future.