Monday, March 3, 2008

The Military-Academic-Industrial Complex

On February 19th, Lockheed Martin Technology Day occurred at the University of Texas at Austin. This event is just one of hundreds of events that occur at UT and throughout the nation which underscore the strong connection between academic institutions and large companies which engage in weapons development and defense contracts. Warfare is an unfortunate and strong, underlying reason for investment in science and engineering. This connection does not receive the attention and critical analysis that it deserves.

In general, of course, there are many positive reasons for developing strong relationships between academia and corporations. Academic institutions have numerous connections with private and public firms, many of which are outside of the arms industry, including biotechnology firms, software companies, energy firms, and the semiconductor industry. Silicon Valley and Route128 are documented examples of how close connections between industry and universities (Stanford and MIT respectively) can be of great value for technology development and production.

Companies supply schools with grants, as well as technical expertise and consultation; schools in turn provide their own consulting services and train engineers and scientists for professional work. Costs for research and development are more efficient by avoiding duplication of laboratories and infrastructure through shared research space. In reality, it often makes sense to work together.

The danger is that academic autonomy is being compromised and subverted by the highest dollar, rather than for the greater public good. Beyond this point, I question the ethical use of public educational research, time, and infrastructure for military arms development. And by extension, I am questioning the morality for highly educated people to pursue livelihoods in the development of military weapons.

We take for granted the necessity to maintain a large standing army for the sake of national security. However, this only became a reality after WWII with the beginning of the cold war. Current military spending by the U.S. is only slightly lower today than it was during the cold war, and it has grown every year since the turn of the century. It is unfortunately difficult to find reputable numbers on the size and quantity of American defense contracts. As a rough bottom line, the U.S. Department of Defense will spend over $500 billion this year. This is only part of the story. An additional $20-30 billion is tied up in nuclear weapons research within the Department of Energy. And then there are a number of costs that may or may not be a part of these estimates, the largest being the war in Iraq, of which we are spending more than $100 billion annually.

Defense contracting is only one part of the defense budget, but it is a major part. In 2007, over $140 billion dollars in revenues was paid to Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, General Dynamics, L-3 Communications, and United Technologies. When you see this quantity of money involved in warfare related activities, rest assured that certain people and businesses are making a lot of profit off war. This money constitutes an incentive to fight more. This incentive would never be the only reason to fight, but it is still the contrary pressure from what is preferable.

Obviously, the size of the issue is greater than solely the role of academic institutions in supporting arms manufacturing. The government has proven ineffective in assuming a role to limit the amount we invest in military development. Weapons manufacturing occurs in every state in the country and no senator would risk the job loss at home required to take a stand to reduce arms expenditures. Thus does the allocation of resources to a huge standing army and a large weapons industry effectively reduce our ability to allocate resources to more worthy social and technical fields.

Of course, there is a fuzzy line between what constitutes unnecessary weapons research and what is done in the defense of America. There is no easy distinction between reasonable arms development for national security, military R&D which benefits civil services (consider the internet), and weapons development which benefits arms contractors at the detriment of social needs. At what point does fusion research become weapons research? To what extent does our nuclear fission research benefit public utilities rather than arms development? At what point does toxicology research become chemical weapons technology? The point of this essay is not to specify hard lines as to what is appropriate or not, but rather to question the basic role of academia in the military. Is this a system that we can morally support?

I hope that academic institutions have enough autonomy to forsake cash for weapons development. Students, faculty, department chairs, administrative staff, and the university president and chairs have a duty to consider the morality of their choices – taking an amoral route in which we do not question academic involvement in arms development is tantamount to making an immoral choice. Most pointedly, we need to ask of ourselves whether we have a responsibility to avoid participating in arms research, and to take a stand not only on the role of our research, but also the role of our department and our school. Let’s take “academic” out of military-academic-industrial complex. And also ask whether we are ok with the world’s largest arms manufacturer holding a “technology” day on our campus. Lockheed-Martin should at least call it what it is: recruiting people to build weapons that kill other people.

I propose a voluntary University of Texas Hippocratic Oath for all staff, faculty, and students. The original oath was written around the 4th century B.C. and has endured through numerous cultural and technological changes owing to the important role doctors play within the community. At least since the beginning of the nuclear age, and likely since the dawn of the industrial revolution, scientists and engineers have assumed an at least equally important role in our society. Though the same technology may often be utilized in both a positive and negative fashion, it would be a powerful statement for all scientists and engineers to affirm the following: “I will pursue no research which has the potential to harm another human being, nor will I aid or abet others should they try to do so. And I will actively seek to develop a healthy public discourse as to what research has the potential to harm society, and in so doing seek to minimize or redirect such activities for the positive benefit of all.”

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