08 Jun 2017   |   Viewpoint

Call for scientists to oppose EU defence R&D money

Europe’s researchers should take a principled stand against the new military R&D programme. The EU was created to preserve peace; it will not be peaceful anymore, says Dave Webb, of the UK Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament

Europe’s scientists should boycott EU plans to invest in weapons research, argues Dave Webb, an engineer and chair of the UK Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. “Scientists should think through the consequences of this new push into defence. The EU developed as a peaceful project, but now it intends to arm and impose itself. It is not going to be peaceful anymore,” he told Science|Business.

For the first time, the Commission is to invest in defence R&D, at an estimated cost of €90 million between 2017-2020. This will pave the way for a full research programme that could require a budget of at least €3.5 billion between 2021 and 2027.

This week the Commission announced it will fund a range of projects, including research on drones, light-weight armour and new forms of camouflage. Previously EU money was only available for dual use research involving the development of technologies for civilian or commercial purposes, but which could also have a military use.

In 2018, the Commission will propose a dedicated EU defence research programme with an estimated annual budget of €500 million, making the EU one of the biggest defence research spenders in Europe.

Webb, who is also a member of the group Scientists for Global Responsibility and until recently a professor of engineering at Leeds Metropolitan University, says researchers should evaluate the threats posed by the about turn on defence R&D funding.

He would like to see the same principled stand from researchers in Europe as was witnessed in the US in 1985, when president Ronald Reagan started the Strategic Defense Initiative to create a space-based shield against nuclear attack, better known as the Star Wars plan.

“Thousands of scientists and physics departments pledged they would not do work on Star Wars,” said Webb. Their argument was that further pursuit of a missile defence system was likely to spur a new arms race. “Something similar could happen here,” Webb said.

But first scientists need to learn more about the new funding. "I am not sure that a boycott would be something many would sign up to if they are not aware of what is happening. We really need an effective information campaign to help publicise what is happening," Webb said. 

A nefarious driver for the new programme, Webb believes, is the bid to spread the EU’s power and reach, with the consequence that it could aggravate Russia and China.

“We are not responding to something by going in this new direction, we are creating something that will be responded to,” he said.

The EU, however, has stressed that rather than raising an army, its role will be to help rationalise spending, making EU militaries more compatible and more battle-ready.

Aside from the ethics of weapon production, Webb fears the shift, “will marginalise non-technical solutions in the EU budget and create big environmental costs.”

The Commission’s director-general for research and innovation, Robert-Jan Smits, said last week that backing new military prototypes “would absorb a lot of EU money”, leaving some doubt over the future allocations for conventional EU research.  

Another concern for researchers is that defence ministry officials, rather than an external science committee, will select grant winners.

The new funding also clashes with one of science’s main goals of openness. The EU has said some work on the programme will be classified, meaning scientists will not always be able to publish findings.

Despite the reservations, attempts to organise resistance against the weapons research programme have been limited. No university or company has taken an official stand or spoken publicly about boycotting defence R&D funding.

Webb suggests the reason for this is that most researchers are too involved in their own work, or worried about seeming political.

There may also be concerns about funding in general. “Universities have to find new funding, which means they turn to industry or defence contractors more and more. Now they are doing the kind of work they might have previously avoided,” Webb said. “Also, there’s more competition for funding than ever, with new universities springing up.”

He fears the spirit of campus protest is fading. “I’ve seen how protest in universities has been largely quashed; it can clash with commercial interests. In the past there would have been far more student activity on this,” said Webb.

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