Should the University decline arms funding?

York should stay away from unethical arms companies like BAE systems

Image: United States Air Force

Image: United States Air Force

Depending on your participation in campus politics, you may have heard of the partnerships that the Computer Science department has with arms companies. The main focus is on BAE Systems, the country’s largest arms company and one of the biggest in the world.
First, I should acknowledge that there have been plenty of accusations and misunderstandings around this subject in the past, and I would like to clarify some of these issues throughout the article rather than propagate more misinformation.
The Department of Computer Science makes no secret of its relationships with arms companies including BAE Systems. This is a cause for concern for some of us as BAE have had allegations of corruption, bribery, spying on anti-arms trade activists, and supplying human rights abusing regimes with weaponry. According to a professor in the Computer Science department who has worked on defence projects with BAE, they fund PhD programmes, commission research projects (although there are no ongoing large projects at the moment, there have been in the past), and advertise their company to students at careers fairs in return for funding.
What the department doesn’t do is develop technology that will be used to harm anyone. The professor I spoke to insisted that almost all of their projects are intended to minimise loss of life by focusing on safety-critical systems, and that they also work on safety-critical projects for cars, hospitals, and civilian aircraft. My concern, however, is that even though their contributions are intended to stop what’s referred to as “unintentional harm”, the final piece of technology can still be used to cause destruction.
The department is also quick                                                                                                              to insist that it follows the government’s line on working with these companies, which is that it’s okay. While this may be the case, by today’s standards the government has at some point in history been wrong on almost any moral issue you could name.
The government also has other interests at stake; the arms trade is one of the country’s biggest industries. Shutting down arms companies would be hugely detrimental to the economy, at least according to David Cameron, and so they’re in favour of keeping the arms trade going for as long as possible. I would argue that the law is not and has never been a code of ethics. The government has never represented the height of morality.
The University also has its own ethics committee, who for whatever reason have also decided that this is acceptable. If either the University or the government were to change their positions, the department would cut ties with arms companies, but this is an unlikely scenario for the near future.
Some would argue that the funding we receive from arms companies is used to improve education and reduce costs for students. While this is indisputable, it is an easy position to take for people so far removed from conflict zones.
In the Yemeni civil war, Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest arms importers who buy equipment from BAE and possibly some of our other research partners, have ruthlessly killed thousands of civilians including hundreds of children.
It is therefore my firmly held belief that the University should ditch funding from the arms trade and instead work with more ethical research partners.

4 comments

  1. Every 2-3 years we get this article. It’s obvious by now that the Nouse only wants polemic and opinion pieces on this, rather than an investigation. An investigation could consider, for example, how easy is it to actually find an “ethical” funder? Who decides whether a funder is ethical or not? And the idea that researchers should avoid topics that are “unethical” is ridiculous – this would mean, for example, that topics like theoretical computer science (improvement to algorithms), networking (GPS research – it could be misused! Ban it!), or even computer games (they could be used for terrorist training – ban it!) should be discarded. This is why we have ethical review processes to force researchers to think about misuse, risk, mixed-used, and mitigation. Now, whether the university’s ethics review processes are perfect – that’s a better question.

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    • Good point Ted. There are lots of areas of research that have several applications; some good and some bad. But whoever funds the research often then has the legal rights to the intellectual property. So when a company such as BAE Systems funds the research it’s easy to assume that the application of that research are not going to be good news. Just look at their track record.

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      • I think we’re agreeing on the dubiousness of direct funding from companies like BAE who have a dodgy track record; I would argue that, instead of a blanket ban, any such projects are subject to the most rigorous of ethics review that is prepared to say “don’t do this”. I wouldn’t want to rule out, for example, research funded by BAE that develops new technology for finding and disarming land mines.

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  2. I agree with all of this, except the part about the arms industry being essential for the UK economy. That is absolutely not true. The arms industry is subsidised by about £700million every year. It relies on a huge amount of support from the government to survive, and wouldn’t in a free market.

    As for the government saying working with the arms industry is ok, that doesn’t mean it is. The government are facing legal action right now over illegal arms sales, including sales made by BAE Systems. BAE Systems have been investigated for fraud repeatedly, so not everything they do is moral.

    And that’s before you get onto the ethics of doing valuable research for a company 95% of who’s business is in arms. Their products have been used in breach of international law many times.

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