Small wonder that some scientists are eager to grasp the SDI nettle. When former Defence Minister Michael Heseltine signed the Memorandum of Understanding in December 1985 .that marked Britain's entry into the Star Wars sweepstakes, he prophesied that $1.5 billion of SDI business would come Britain's way. For many, the Heseltine promise seemed like manna from heaven. Such an injection of funds could, it seemed, save many research groups from disbanding and a lot of scientists from unemployment.
Today it is clear that very little SDI money has come to Britain (only about $30 million so far) and that very little can be expected. It is clear, too, that SDI has done nothing to rekindle British research. That realization has helped fuel the debate over British participation in the SDI program.
At the time the Memorandum was signed, British participation was unpopular. Even some Cabinet Ministers, including Foreign Minister Geoffrey Howe, had questioned the technical feasibility of the space-based ballistic missile defenses envisioned by President Reagan. Many also doubted the political wisdom of participation, including its effects on national security.
Today, most British researchers couldn't care less about participation in SDI. Those who do care are split. Those who are bitterly opposed (including many prominent computer scientists not previously known for their interest in defense issues) have expressed their opposition through statements by the British Pugwash Group and by Scientists Against Nuclear Arms. Those who do want to participate do not necessarily believe in the program's technical feasibility. But they do often urgently need research funds for their laboratories and see SDI as a way, and perhaps the only way, of getting them.
But because of the way the contracts have been handed out, it is clear that even the small amount of SDI money coming Britain's way will not help those British researchers in the greatest need—even those in physics, technology and computer science, the crucial areas for SDI technologies. In fact, the three biggest contracts have gone to some of Britain's most well-endowed establishments—the Rutherford Laboratory, the Atomic Energy Authority and (surprise!) the British Ministry of Defence itself.
Heseltine's promise that the SDI agreement would give Britain "research possibilities which we could not afford on our own in technologies that will be at the centre of tomorrow's world" has turned out to be an empty one. American money in the form of SDI contracts will not save British science. Only the British government can do that, and all the signs are that it will not.