Science group hits out at EU military research plan

02 Nov 2016 | News
UK-based Scientists for Global Responsibility calls for a serious debate among scientists before the EU ‘crosses the line’ into defence R&D

A British science ethics group has criticised the EU’s intention to spend billions of euros on military research, saying it could boost arms sales to countries with poor human rights records. 

“The plan disturbs us greatly,” said Stuart Parkinson, a mathematician and director of Scientists for Global Responsibility, a UK-based lobby group that promotes ethical and peaceful science, referring to European Commission’s, "Preparatory Action for Defence Research," which would provide three years of funding to lay the groundwork for a full €3-4 billion defence budget to be approved in 2021.

“The EU is a civilian initiative and a holder of the Nobel Peace Prize. Do we really want to cross this line?” Parkinson said in an interview with Science|Business.

The initial EU programme, likely to start next year and finish in 2020, will cost between €40 and €100 million. It will be the first time the EU has provided funding exclusively for defence research.

 “We’re concerned it will boost arms exports to countries with poor human rights records like Saudi Arabia.” Parkinson said.  The money would be better spent on understanding how conflict starts, he believes.

Industry and government push

With the UK, a country long-ambivalent to EU-led defence plans, heading for the exit in 2019, many in Brussels feel the moment is right for the EU to take on a more active role on the global defence stage.

The case for an EU-funded defence programme has been put together in recent months by German, French and Italian governments, as well as a so-called "group of personalities" which includes politicians and representatives from companies such as Saab, Indra, and BAE Systems.

Their view is that the fund is timely, with Europe lagging behind other major powers on defence spending. Only four out of the 26 European members of NATO met the alliance’s objective of spending two per cent of GDP on defence last year, and a number of US officials have loudly implored the EU to invest more money in military hardware.

Instead of public money, the push “has come from industry rather than researchers,” Parkinson said.

One argument for military research is that it can help spawn indispensable new technologies, such as the internet and GPS.

“It’s not a strong argument when you break it down. There’s nothing special about the military that makes great spin-offs. All science can lead to unintended positives,” said Parkinson. “In the military field, there’s actually barriers to spin-offs, because of competition around IP.”

In a bid to bring researchers around the issue, Parkinson said he would like to approach Stephen Hawking, world-renowned scientist and a patron of Scientists for Global Responsibility.

Hawking and other leading UK scientists and engineers signed a letter organised by Scientists for Global Responsibility in July, calling on UK politicians to vote against the renewal of the Trident submarine nuclear weapons systems (the decision went the other way).

If an ethical argument is not enough to win over scientists, Parkinson offers a practical one. “It’ll replace existing research priorities,” he said.


Scientists for Global Responsibility is not the only voice being raised against the new fund.

“My understanding of the EU is that it is meant to be a peace project,” said Laëtitia Sédou, EU programme officer with the European Network Against Arms Trade.

Like Parkinson, Sédou views the plan as providing, “Subsidies to preserve the competitiveness of the arms industry and its capacity to export abroad.”

Her group, which has started a petition against the fund that has attracted over 60,000 signatures, also says the new defence programme will result in “drastic cuts” to other spending priorities.

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