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Military thinking has a disproportionate influence on science and technology in modern Britain.
Almost a third of all public spending on research is funded by the Ministry of Defence - far more than is spent on research by the National Health Service.
British universities are caught up in a new wave of military partnerships, and young researchers have switched to high-technology weapons-based research in a dangerous atmosphere of commercialisation and secrecy.
Soldiers in the Laboratory published by Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR) - argues that by concentrating on technological solutions, military science narrows thinking on security issues. Instead of addressing the social problems at the root of terrorism or civil conflict, researchers have instead focused on biochemical warfare sensors, advanced field equipment for infantrymen or missile technologies that could fuel another arms race. British defence chiefs spend only 6% of their research budget on preventing conflict.
Global military spending in 2003 stood at $956bn, the report says, of which the US spent 40%.
But Britain is the world's third-largest military spender - and the second-largest spender on military science, engineering and technology.
The report argues that the international arms trade, driven by the development of ever more sophisticated weaponry, is contributing to conflict and exacerbating poverty and human rights problems. It also accuses a small number of military corporations of exerting ‘a largely invisible influence’ on the British government. And it argues that the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the US is pushing military research in ways that have profound ethical implications.
‘Today the military sector plays a disproportionate role in setting the research agenda for science and engineering,’ said Chris Langley, author of the report. ‘Yet we face a whole variety of security threats not addressed by current military thinking - which is outdated and reminiscent of the cold war.’
US spending on military objectives is soaring. But Britain plans to boost spending on high-technology military capability over the next five years. Last year the MoD spent £2.6bn on research. This is 30% of the total public research and development budget. The MoD also employs 40% of all government researchers. The UK defence procurement agency now spends about £6bn a year on military equipment.
Steven Rose, a brain and behaviour scientist at the Open University who first campaigned on this issue more than 30 years ago, said: ‘Ever since 1945, and under Tory and Labour governments, Britain has spent disproportionately more of its research and development budget on military technology than any other country ...’
‘Will it ever change? SGR's report argues that it is both possible and desirable. Is it too much to hope that the next election might bring to power a government committed to redirecting science away from the military?’
At the heart of the issue is the link between weapons development and arms sales. Secrecy means that debate and dissent are muted or even stifled, and that public scrutiny is weakened. The military sector dominated space orbital technology for almost 30 years during the cold war, and could do so again as the US moves towards new missile technologies. New missile defence issues could distort the direction of global communication development.
And military thinking could also dominate the direction of nanotechnology - the science of materials on scales of a billionth of a metre - pushing research in the direction of new ‘smart’ uniforms and battlefield equipment. Fifteen years from now, this might result in a new generation of nuclear weapons, new kinds of miniature robot fighting systems, body implants and miniature anti-satellite weapons. The same research applied to chemical or biological warfare could end in ‘entirely new threats’.
Philip Webber, chairman of Scientists for Global Responsibility, said: ‘The report reveals a new military-industrial complex of the 21st century - military-led funding of exotic technologies and hi-tech weaponry rather than technology to address pressing social needs.’
Tim Radford, The Guardian