Military-backed research is being cut back - but will this affect science?

How is military-funded research affecting science? Defence Department

As the Pentagon announced cuts to their Defence budget and similar steps have already been taken in the UK, some are calling for military research projects to go untouched.

Military research has transformed our lives in a profound way. Throughout the 20th century, the Defence budget for science research has steadily increased. World-wide conflicts during that period have resulted in massive boosts to military-sponsored research.

World War I is often referred to as the “chemist’s war” for the advances made in gases and explosives; World War II brought us radars, atomic technology and jet aircraft technology; while the Cold War created a need for better computing, mathematical encryption and space travel.

At the ANU, a research group (which I am part of) is currently looking at the use of composite materials in various industries. As the first few months of my PhD went by, I quickly realised that the pioneers behind a number of great composite materials applications were in fact the military. I would find myself reading about research from the 1980-90s originating from DSTO, NASA and other government departments.

Previous military projects that resulted in technologies massively impacting our everyday life include the GPS system (developed by U.S. Department of Defense in the 1970s and still maintained by them today); the Internet (developed in the 1960s by DARPA, a research and development arm of the U.S. military); improved fibre optics technology in the 1970s (for better data transmission); or jet propulsion technology (aviation). NASA even has a name for these inventions: “spinoffs”. A large presentation is available online (here) where you can read about NASA research that trickled down to civilian consumers (where do you think your UV-blocking sunnies came from?)

There is no doubt that war can be a powerful driver for innovation but the issue with military research is the lack of transparency. These bodies don’t report their work to the general public, as most researchers would. There is no accountability to society at large on the nature of the research involved. The technology developed by these government bodies is kept behind a curtain of secrecy for a period of time before being released to the general public. But how often does that actually happen? What kind of technology is Defence currently working on? And most importantly, do we want our world to be shaped by Defence and combat-driven needs that will then (eventually) be converted for the rest of us?

This debate has been going on since the 1980s, with researchers analysing how military funded projects affects the course of scientific research. Paul Forman wrote in 1987 that military funding of science greatly expanded its scope and significance but viewed the influx of military money (and the strings attached to it) as potentially negative since it moved science towards more applied research. Forman also argues that scientists in military projects don’t retain intellectual autonomy. These views are still shared today as many in the science community view excessive government spending in military-backed research projects as “misguided”.

Another issue with military research is the secrecy around budget decisions. Often referred as “black budgets”, these pools of money are then distributed by the government to research bodies without disclosure to the general public. In the U.S., the classified budget of the Defense Department is at $50 billion which is roughly the entire defence budgets of the UK, France or Japan. The U.S. is leading in terms of military research outcomes but it doesn’t come cheap either.

As the world economy is tightening and there is less cash to spread around, military-backed research projects may experience budget cuts. In Australia, there area already talks of planned cuts in the Defence budget although some are actually calling for budget increases due to our relatively healthy economy.

So what do you think? Does defence research corrupt the process? Or does the track record of military-backed projects that shaped our lives for the better speak for themselves?