Universities are hubs for furthering knowledge and expertise. However, much of their research funding seeks to support the arms industry. Liam Doherty explores the relationship between universities and weapons manufacturing and how it puts academic integrity at risk. 

Universities in the UK are making a killing from their partnerships with the arms trade, in exchange for conducting research for weapons manufacturers. This research involves either directly working on military science and weapons development or has ‘dual-use’ applications – meaning that the research could eventually inform weapons development.

Many students and academics believe that this research and these partnerships jeopardise what a university should seek to do. Instead of selling their research capabilities to arms companies, universities should broaden the minds of their students, working to produce knowledge that improves the health, wellbeing, and security of the world.

Demilitarise Education’s database of university arms-trade partnerships lists hundreds of these research projects. In some cases, the universities have declined to disclose the details, such as project title and aims, meaning that we know only that weapons companies are either the sponsors or are ‘industrial partners’ of the projects.

For others, the intentions are clear: take the University of Manchester working on Aircraft Control Systems for BAE Systems, Aberystwyth University Doctoral Training on ‘Swarm Robotics’ with Leonardo, or University of Exeter Electromagnetic Materials research alongside QinetiQ, Thales, two UK government research agencies, and the US Air Force.

How did we get here?

The fact that universities work to serve the interests of the state and of corporations is not an entirely recent development, and Britain’s ‘elite’ universities have long histories of propping up imperialism. But what we are seeing now is that these universities are becoming increasingly dependent on the finances of arms trade, fossil fuel, and other companies whose activities are detrimental to human security.

As universities have been increasingly commercialised, they have become a hotbed of arms trade activity, in such a way as limits their ability to actually enhance global security by meeting the real threats we face. Central to this is that universities have seen a reduction by half of central government financing in the last decade, and operate with huge deficits in their research budgets. This leaves ample space for arms companies to step in, allowing them to cement their position in universities and promote arms-oriented research agendas.

Their positions are bolstered by government spending, with public funding from research agencies like the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) being spent in the hundreds-of-millions of pounds on university-based military technology research, conducted in partnership with arms companies.

The government sees this research as falling in line with its economic and national security agendas. With arms sales identified as a post-Brexit priority for growth (see Murphy, p.4), the placement of arms companies in universities serves the strategic economic interests of the government, as well as furthering its securitisation aims through innovation in weapons development. While the actual economic contribution of the arms industry is widely questioned, this all also poses a question of what, and who, the university is for.

How does this affect research integrity?

Here, universities are being used by arms companies and the state as a means to an end. Students campaign with us as part of a community of peacemakers, and they certainly don’t want their universities to be the sites of such narrow, militarised research. The fact that the university has been instrumentalised – that is, it serves the interests of the military-industrial complex – goes against what they see as the ‘public good’ that academic knowledge should promote: promoting actual solutions to crises in climate, health, and conflict. Not simply making newer, more deadly rockets and fighter jets.

Take, for instance, the University of Bristol, where there is an incredibly active movement against militarisation. In 2019, the University was the first in the country to declare a climate emergency and has been put forward for prestigious climate awards for its environmental efforts. There is a lot of merit in the steps that the university has taken to address sustainability and promote climate science – but its extensive arms-trade ties form an uneasy juxtaposition to this.

Demilitarise Education’s research has identified that the university receives major amounts of funding from the arms trade: between 2017 and 2021, the university received research and consultancy income worth £1.1 million from Northrop Grumman, £1 million from BAE Systems, and a staggering £9.6 million and £10 million respectively from aircraft and military aerospace companies Rolls Royce and Airbus. This comes alongside major, multi-million pound research projects funded by government research agencies involving the likes of QinetiQ, Thales, and Leonardo.

Not only are these companies subject to intensive criticism of their human rights record – indeed, many of them manufacture products currently fuelling a humanitarian disaster in Yemen – but they are also all major polluters. According to research by the University of Massachusetts, Northrop Grumman is the US’s largest corporate contributor to water pollution, and has lost major lawsuits for its environmental crimes. BAE Systems, while it tries to push its ‘green’ credentials and has pledged net zero, remains responsible for around 30% of UK arms-industry emissions, according to research by SGR. Partnering with military aerospace companies Airbus and Rolls Royce speaks for itself. Meanwhile, the university maintains research links to the US and UK militaries, with both holding devastating environmental records.

Of course, academic research isn’t automatically a ‘zero-sum game’: more research on weapons doesn’t, necessarily, mean that there will be less research done on climate science. But it does compromise Bristol’s position as a world leader on climate change, and here’s why.

For one thing, research conducted with arms companies has detrimental impacts on engineering and science departments overall, diminishing standards of research openness and accountability, and making academics more restricted in their ability to speak publicly on arms and conflict issues.

There is a further risk of ‘crowding out’, with military or high-technology research promoted in academic spheres, to the detriment of understanding other research bases around security – including human, climate, or food security. This is not only because of the better funding channelled to military security research, but also as it enjoys better links to security policy making.

At the most basic level, partnering with these companies – with abysmal environmental and human rights records a central part of their business model – calls into question the commitments of the university to progressive, sustainable knowledge production. If these companies can buy their way into a university that prides itself on its values, what does that say about the rigorousness of university research standards?

Demilitarise Education have launched a national petition, calling on universities to end their partnerships with arms trade companies. One signature of the 3,500 signed so far summarised this issue well, commenting with a quote from Kofi Annan: “War is overfinanced, peace is underfinanced”.

[Liam Doherty is the Media Officer of Demilitarise Education, an organisation working to build a world where universities champion peace, not war]

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

Image Credit: Photograph from a protest carried out by ‘Demilitaise Cambridge‘ on 22nd January 2022