Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.
A freedom of information request recently shone some light on the level of engagement that the University of Southampton has with the military and the armaments industry. Naturally, this raises the question of whether these relationships are something the university should participate in and what alternative possibilities there are for what research it could be conducting and how it directs its student’s future careers.
The FOI also shows that over half of funds given by the government to the uni for research comes through the Engineering and Physical Science Council (EPSRC). The ‘Strategic Technology Director’ for BAE systems sits on the EPSRC, along with Southampton’s own vice chancellor and others in the fossil fuel and cyber security industry. Unsurprisingly it also funds research related to these activities, in effect subsidising them.
The MOD has stated that unmanned and cyber warfare which is what UoS has previously been revealed to be working on will be at the heart of its defence strategy with the Minister for Science Research and Innovation Amanda Solloway saying:
“Placing science and research at the heart of the UK’s defence activity will unleash a new wave of innovation for our brilliant armed forces, equipping them to meet our greatest challenges. By backing our best and brightest scientific minds in every corner of the UK, we will ensure we bolster the security of our nation now and for decades to come.”
Translated this means that Academics play a vital role in the UK’s ability to project its power around the world whether it’s enabling gulf dictatorships to bomb and blockade Yemen or provoking great power conflicts with Russia and China. The government has recently unveiled multiple initiatives that will increase militarism in British society. These include a £16.5 billion increase in the MoD’s budget, a new £3.5 billion aircraft carrier group that will sent out to the South China Sea from Portsmouth harbour in the spring and a 40% increase in the number of nuclear warheads in the UK stockpile.
There are alternatives that could be pursued. Campaign against the Arms Trade has published various reports detailing how the hundreds of thousands of workers in the arms industry could instead be building the renewable energy infrastructure the UK needs to combat climate change. The reporting shows that if military spending was brought down to the percentage of GDP that Germany spends then the government would have the funds that its own climate change monitoring group recommends it spend on decarbonisation.
There is a tradition of academics and students dissenting when they feel compelled to. A mathematics professor at Cambridge, Bertrand Russel, was imprisoned for speaking against Britain joining the First World War, writing in the national press at the time
“The diplomatists … restrained by punctilio from making or accepting the small concessions that might have saved the world, hurried on [in]blind fear to loose the armies for the work of mutual butchery. And behind them, stand vast forces of national greed and hatred .. fostered by the upper class as a distraction from social discontent, artificially nourished by the sinister influence of the makers of armaments, encouraged by a whole foul literature of ‘glory’, and by every text-book of history by which the minds of children are polluted.”
This is still occurring in the modern day, with former British soldier Ahmed Al Batati and former FCO barrister Molly Mulready who defended the UK government’s right to export weapons to Saudi Arabia. Both spoke out against Britain’s involvement at the national day of action for Yemen that Stop the War organised.
Independent SAGE has given scathing criticism of the government handling of the pandemic from experts which has informed the public, the British Medical Journal has gone as far as publishing editorials calling the government’s response social murder. A group of ethical scientists have also criticised the government’s latest defence review saying that it is a squandering of resources and will increase international tensions.
Similar initiatives are underway on campus. This semester the Amnesty International Society are running a ‘Stop Killer Robots Campaign’ and trying to host events on this issue and gathering signatures for a related petition. SUSU presidential candidate Corin Holloway, who ran on making the university’s administration review their research and investments commented:
“The Universities shouldn’t be working with companies exacerbating and profiting off of war”.
One member of staff, whose research receives funding from the US Air Force Laboratory, brought up that this may not be possible in the current climate and that change on broader level is needed, saying:
“I would not have considered working on anything that had any direct connections with operational weapons. But I had to think carefully before going for it. The difficulty is that public funding at universities is dwindling (as [as it is for]anything public these days) and it is tough for researchers to keep their research going, so I understand why some colleagues may be tempted.”