Scientists step up opposition to EU funding of military research

12 Apr 2018 | News

Campaign against a multi-billion euro plan enlists over 400 researchers around Europe and further afield. Rather than weapons, the EU should fund research to tackle the root causes of conflict, they say  

Researchers opposed to the EU’s decision to start funding military research are stepping up their pressure on Brussels with a fresh call for the new defence research programme to be axed.

A petition organised jointly by civil society groups in Belgium, the UK, Italy and Germany demanding the EU restrict its research vision to tackling the causes of conflicts now has more than 400 signatories.

“The EU, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, should instead fund more innovative and courageous research which helps to tackle the root causes of conflict or contributes to the peaceful resolution of conflict,” the petition says.

The campaign follows the launch last year of the EU’s first-ever defence research call, offering grants for new military hardware including drones, lighter-weight armour for soldiers and naval surveillance.  “The "Preparatory Action for Defence Research", fund aims to grow from its pilot phase to a multi-billion-euro undertaking from 2021. If it reaches this level, the EU would become the fourth largest investor in defence industry research in Europe after the UK, France and Germany.

“Not only will [the new direction] exacerbate a global race in such technologies, but this could also lead to an increase in arms exports to repressive regimes and fuel conflict,” the petition claims. “Already EU-made weapons are facilitating violations of international humanitarian law and human rights in a number of conflict zones.”

For some researchers, the EU’s new direction crosses a clear ethical line.

“We’re seeing a growing discontent about this,” said Stuart Parkinson, a mathematician and director of UK-based Scientists for Global Responsibility, one of the main organisers of the petition, which has grown by over 200 names in the past week.

Many of the signatories are from Germany, where an enduring sensitivity over the past means many of the country’s universities refuse to get involved in defence research. There is also a large number of signatories from the UK, Italy, Belgium, Spain, the US and Japan.

“For me this is primarily an ethical issue,” said Daniela DeBono, one of the signatories, who is an EU-funded researcher in international migration and ethnic relations at Malmö University in Sweden. “But we also know through research that further militarisation does not bring about meaningful or more fruitful interactions and encounters between people.”

“The EU and its member states spend a great deal of energy and resources on arms control, non-proliferation, disarmament or in promoting conflict prevention and peacebuilding throughout the world,” said Marc Finaud, former French diplomat, now a staff member at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. “And on the other hand they support the arms industry lobby.”

Jutta Weber, professor of  media studies at the University of Paderborn, pointed out that the EU already has a huge security research programme which can partly be used for military purposes, saying, “We need more diplomacy and not ever growing aggression.”

Technology in wrong hands

Most of those campaigning on this issue fear the creation of EU armed forces and argue there is no guarantee that high-end technologies developed with EU subsidies, such as new drones, will not one day fall into the wrong hands.

“I don’t think the world becomes a safer place for people the more armaments there are, sloshing about the place,” said Nicholas Maxwell, emeritus reader in philosophy of science at University College London. “The combination of weapons kept at hair-trigger readiness, with [people like] Trump and Putin in charge, risking the end of civilization, strikes me as absolute madness.” 

Advancements in artificial intelligence and robotics also lower the threshold to starting a war, Parkinson believes.

In a statement, the European Defence Agency, which administers the EU research grants, said its role is, “to support member states in the development of their defence capabilities. The use of these capabilities falls under the responsibility of the member states and is regulated by national and international law.” The European Commission was also invited to comment.

Controversial, but popular

The case for an EU-funded defence programme was made last year by the German, French and Italian governments, as well as a so-called "group of personalities" which includes politicians and representatives from defence companies including Saab, Indra, and BAE Systems.

Their view is that, with Europe facing a range of threats on its borders and lagging behind other major powers on defence spending, the funding has become a matter of necessity.

Only five of the EU’s 28 members meet NATO’s target of spending two per cent of national income on defence, and a number of US officials have loudly implored the EU to invest more money in military hardware – the kind that, in the past has helped spawn new technologies, such as the internet and GPS. There is an appetite for more EU coordination on defence, to cut down on costs.

Despite disquiet among a section of researchers, the EU funding has proved popular. Last year EDA received submissions from 190 companies and research bodies from countries including the UK, Italy, Estonia, France, Greece, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden, in response to the first three competitions it ran.

It is difficult to argue that the continent does not badly need this new defence research, Frédéric Mauro, a lawyer and research associate, told the European Parliament in January. “Research on defence in Europe is a shadow of its former self. The last breakthroughs here were radar and jet fighters in the 1940s. Today, you’ve got the unique opportunity to save European defence. This is about our autonomy,” Mauro said.

Muted opposition

Outside of activism from NGOs such as the European Network Against Arms Trade and the International Peace Bureau, and some members of the European Parliament, efforts to block, or even debate, the move into military defence have been limited.

In member states, there is some hand-wringing over increased defence cooperation generally, but virtually no conversations on the EU’s defence R&D push.

“Traditionally, it’s always been hard to get science organisations, particularly the big ones, to publicly speak out against this sort of thing. Why? They need funding,” said Parkinson.

Even in the UK, which has a history of blocking EU-led defence, the new programme is enticing for universities. “Brexit sees universities scrabbling around for any funding they can get,” said Keith Baker, a research associate in sustainable urban environments at Glasgow Caledonian University.

Joint projects on defence could be positive, said Finaud, but one source of concern is the relationship of dependence that could be established between the arms industry and academia. That  could result in the drying up of independent research on the potential impact of new autonomous weapon systems.

“The case of the French security think tanks, [which are] almost exclusively dependent on funding from the defence establishment, is certainly not a model to apply to the rest of the EU. At a minimum, there should be a broad and transparent debate within the European Parliament and scientific communities,” Finaud said.

Squeeze on civilian research

If the ethical argument is not enough to win over scientists, they may be exercised by the practical consideration that EU defence research could threaten civilian research spending.

“Looking at the US, we see a development where spending on military research via DARPA is significantly higher than spending via civil programmes such as the NIH or NSF and the factor increases continuously as civil research budgets get slashed and military spending increases,” said Chris Biemann, professor for language technology at the University of Hamburg. “This will surely also happen in Europe once money gets tight.”

Defence spending, “will increase at the cost of all those areas of academic research such as philosophy, literary studies, which have been traditionally focused on alternative ways of thinking,” said Cornelis van der Haven, an assistant professor at Ghent University in early modern Dutch literature.

This fear, although of lesser importance for researchers opposed to military investment on ethical grounds, is widely held. Financing the defence pilot has led the Commission to redirect millions of euros from energy and environmental research allocations.

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