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.