A call to arms

In his speech to the UN last month, Gordon Brown argued for the need to put science and technology at the heart of efforts to tackle the world’s social and environmental problems.


None of us would argue with this sentiment, nor would we dispute the great and proven potential of engineering to effect positive changes in almost every area of human activity.


But a report launched this week by the campaigning group Scientists for Global Responsibility draws attention to a disturbing flip side: namely the contribution that science and technology has made to global instability through the industrialised world’s commitment to increased military spending: a global bill that is reported to run to an astonishing $1.2tn per year


Turning its spotlight on the UK, the report, entitled ‘More Soldiers in the Laboratory: the militarisation of science and technology’ argues that current UK science policy allows the military far too much influence in the science and technology sectors.


Driven by the so-called ‘war on terror’ and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan it also claims that involvement in science and technology has expanded to a disturbing extent in recent years.


A chief concern is the increasing extent of academic involvement in the military sector. This, claims SGR, is driven by the government’s Defence Technology Strategy, which marks an expanded effort to involve universities more deeply in military R&D. SGR claims that as a result there is now an unhealthy focus on a weapons-based security agenda at the expense of a broader approach.


It calls on the Prime Minister to back up his words with deeds and force a shift in current R&D spending to prioritise social and environmental concerns, and direct funding at R&D which tackles poverty, climate change, ill health and the roots of conflict rather than just the development of more sophisticated methods of blowing people up.


Back in 2004 industrialised nations spent a total of $85bn on military R&D and just $1bn on R&D for renewable energy technologies. If the balance really is this skewed in favour of military research, then surely it’s time for a rethink: after all the world doesn’t appear to be getting any safer.




Jon Excell