Military involvement in the funding of research, teaching and training at British universities is on the rise. Pushing this agenda is the government, which has maintained Britain’s unenviable position as the second biggest arms exporter and devotes a third of state research and development (R&D) funding to military projects.
The trend is part of the growing commercialisation of universities and their subordination to business interests under the impact of corporate-driven globalisation. Firstly, R&D is cheaper when carried out by universities than by the corporations themselves. Secondly, the main objective of the universities as laid down by the government is to contribute to economic growth. Ruth Kelly, then education secretary, spelled it out in January 2006 when she told a funding council that higher education should “be partly or wholly designed, funded and provided by employers”.
This orientation is reinforced at every turn. Last year the Sainsbury Review on science and technology for the Treasury spoke warmly of “knowledge transfer” from the universities. Sainsbury’s team met with military corporations and the American defence department.
Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR) has campaigned against the growing links between universities and military research. A new SGR report Behind Closed Doors, reveals that since 2002 a number of military-university partnerships have been put in place. Of 43 UK universities investigated, no fewer than 42 were found to receive military funding. Cambridge University received 11% of its domestic and 15% of its overseas research income from military sources.
Much of the funding is obscured, despite the universities presenting themselves as open and accountable institutions. The SGR report noted: “Detailed, comprehensive data on military involvement in universities was very difficult to obtain even when the Freedom of Information Act was invoked. The causes were a combination of incomplete record-keeping, commercial restrictions, pressures on researchers and, most disturbingly, evasiveness on the part of officials.” As for the researchers, the report not surprisingly found they were less able to express any ethical concerns openly because of the pressure from powerful interests as well as university administrators.
The SGR believes that the “war on terror” has fuelled what it calls a “relentless increase in the global military burden”, with a growing emphasis on high-technology, weapons-based approaches to tackling security issues. The priorities for global capitalism are beyond dispute. In 2006, governments in the richer countries spent a total of $96 billion on military R&D, but only $56 billion on R&D related to health and environmental protection. Climate change R&D just topped the $1 billion mark worldwide.
The sentiments expressed by SGR in its report are absolutely right: “Universities are a cornerstone of an educated and healthy democracy, and there needs to be a profound shift away from seeing them in narrowly economic terms. Research, teaching and training need to contribute more explicitly to social justice, climate change mitigation and to challenge other threats to global security, and should not simply be seen as a primary means to increase business profits.”
Optimistically, they are addressed to the New Labour government, which is in bed with the global corporations and their takeover of the universities. While this unholy alliance dominates politics, the universities will continue down the slippery slope of becoming the taxpayer-funded R&D arm of big business.