Weapons Research Extracts A Toll On Academic Science

Do you relish the idea of having an Army or Navy officer looking over your shoulder and deciding whether your research is worthwhile or not? This is not an idle imagining, given the already considerable and ever-expanding influence the military sector is exerting on university campuses. It is a fact that with dollars comes clout, and as the second largest source of federal research support, the military, whose top priority is the development of arms technologies, is increasingly defining the

Oct 16, 1989
Carl Leopold

Do you relish the idea of having an Army or Navy officer looking over your shoulder and deciding whether your research is worthwhile or not? This is not an idle imagining, given the already considerable and ever-expanding influence the military sector is exerting on university campuses.

It is a fact that with dollars comes clout, and as the second largest source of federal research support, the military, whose top priority is the development of arms technologies, is increasingly defining the goals and functions of research in the university setting.

Over the past eight years, the demand for new military technologies has resulted in increased pressure on the academic community to focus on the development of new and improved techniques of waging war. According to AAAS Report XIII; in 1988 military contracts to universities constituted more than 18% of the federal research funding to the academic community. In some academic departments, such as electrical and astronautical engineering, military contracts now constitute from 50% to 80% of all research funding. At Johns Hopkins University, for example, military contracts constitute about 60% of the total research budgets (Common Cause, November 1986, page 29). At Georgia Tech, military contracts constitute 85% of the total university research budget. And in 1987, Carnegie Mellon University accepted a handsome $103 million from the Department of Defense (DOD) for an institute to do research on weapons targeting and tracking (Chronicle of Higher Education, April 20, 1988).

Does the university community resist the infiltration of military dollars for research? Clearly the answer is no. When a recent request for proposals was issued by DOD for the agency’s University Research Initiative Grants, it received nearly 1,000 proposals from the academic sector. Many university administrators are happy to accept military contracts now that they are starving for research funding. The extent of the starvation is evident in the fact that federal support for nonmilitary research over the period 1972-89 has increased by a paltry 1%, from $17.6 billion to $17.8 billion (using constant 1982 dollars). And federal grants constitute 62% of research funds in the academic community. Using data from the president’s proposed budget for 1989 reviewed in AAAS Report XIII, the total federal funds for R&D in 1989 is $65 billion, of which $42 billion is committed for military purposes. This means that 65% of federal allocations for R&D are for military purposes.

If the academics show signs of resisting military dollars, the simplest means of pacifying the resistors is for DOD and other agencies funding military programs to add more dollars from their vast treasure chests. In 1988, faculty members at the University of Califomia, which operates Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos national labs under a contract with the Department of Energy (DOE), protested the extent of the university’s involvement with the nuclear weapons facilities. DOE assuaged the concern by donating an additional $5 million for nonnuclear and peace studies (The Scientist, Jan. 23, 1989, page 2).

Some universities offer faculty special incentives to participate in military programs. For example, the faculty of Cornell University has been invited by the university’s vice president for research to attend briefing sessions with Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) advocates and DOD representatives, with the university providing free transportation to the cities where the briefing sessions are held. The same university has recently received $2 mil- lion from DOD for expansion of a supercomputer; then DOD demanded the right to exclude students or faculty of certain nationalities from using the computer. The military thus claims the right to select who can use academic equipment on the campus.

Professional societies and science organizations have in some instances joined the trend of courting military dollars. Last October, the National Academy of Sciences held a briefing session to bring together academic mathematicians and SDI representatives to provide a special opportunity to arrange for military funding. The American Society of Engineering Education now sponsors a postdoctoral fellowship program paid for by the Office of Naval Technology. Their classy brochure describes these fellowships, which will bring engineering postdoctorals to places such as the Naval Surface Weapons Center, or to the Naval Weapons Center, where they can apply their research skills to such problems as “battle management architecture and optimization,” and “warhead and terminal effects.” I shudder to think what the “terminal effects” might be.

University administrators defend their acceptance of military contracts by declaring that they will only accept money for unclassified research. While this limitation sounds sensible enough, it is a sham. The military simply parcels out contracts for small enough components that the contract need not be classified. Cornell University has such a rule against accepting contracts for classified research, but this does not limit its willingness to accept SDI contracts for the development of such components as a high-powered radar, semiconductor lasers, radiowave sensors for satellite detectors, and an ion beam that could be used to discriminate between decoy missiles and nuclear warheads in space.

Johns Hopkins University (founded as a Quaker university) has a similar rule excluding classified research, but has, accepted contracts for the development of guidance systems for the Trident, Pershing, and Cruise Missile systems (Common Cause, November 1986). The University of California, Berkeley, has a contract to test radiation effects on Trident missile components (Science, 235:23, 1987). Administrators from each of these universities declare themselves in favor of academic freedom in that they will not accept contracts for classified research. Clearly, such restrictions are not hindering the acceptance of military dollars.

In short, the drift toward militarization is welcomed and embraced by many sectors of the academic community. This is true even though the intrusion of military technology diverts academic research away from the university~community’s essential goal, which is the advancement of knowledge. As Tela C. Zasloff asks in a report in the Chronicle of Higher Education (April 20, 1988), when does a university become a branch of the Air Force?

Funding exerts a powerful influence on the direction of science. Military funding is guiding the academic research community increasingly toward the development of military commodities, and science is increasingly being transformed by political pragmatism.

More important to the academic community is the amount of military money that is contracted to the universities of the nation. From 1981 to 1988, DOD has annually contracted more research money to universities than has the National Science Foundation—the agency that was established to be responsible for sustaining the health and welfare of academic science, and charged with insulating academic research from political exploitation. The military sector has become a dominant supporter of academic research, second only to the National Institutes of Health.

There are reasons to be concerned about the effectiveness of DOD in administering research allocations to universities. Numerous cases have been reported in the press of military grants being allocated without peer review; military officers can frequently decide themselves which science is most deserving of financial support. There are interesting cases in which granting officials have appraised research proposals in part with consideration of whether the principal investigator had expressed criticisms of DOD or the SDI (Science, 232:929, 1986).

These facts collectively suggest that the military sector threatens the survival of the academic enterprise as an idealistic institution instead of a hireling of the war machine. At a time of financial stringencies in universities, the plush levels of military funding Qffer a Faustjan temptation. An important aspect of the problem is the difficulty of finding effective means of limiting the damage from the military incursion.

I suggest three lines of action for limiting the military role in academia. I realize that none of these is a sufficient action, but it is possible that taken together my suggestions could help to stem the advancing military domination.

" First, I suggest that academic scientists refuse to accept contracts for military research, .because of the inherent threat to the academic enterprise.

" Second, voters should ask Congress to require that basic research funds allocated by DOD to universities be passed through appropriate civilian agencies such as NSF or NIH. This requirement would give the responsibility for judging the relative scientific merits of research proposals to agencies best qualified to recognize scientific quality.

" Third, and most important, members of the academic science community should communicate with their representatives in Congress, with members of the Science and Technology Congressional Committees, and with the president of the National Academy of Sciences to express their alarni over the militarization of academic research.

If the federal government wishes to assure the effectiveness of the academic enterprise as a source of basic information and of trained scientists, there are effective and appropriate agencies through which this can be done, that is, NSF and NIH. To give major responsibility for the health of academic science to the military sector is a dangerous inversion of logic. The militarization of the academic community has every potential for undermining the quality and purpose of this unique source of U.S. science and scientists.

A. Carl Leopold is W.C. Crocker Scientist at the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, Cornell University, Ithaca N.Y.