Pugwash: Military research at academic institutions raises questions

Credit: Eunice Oh/ Credit: Eunice Oh/

This week at Pugwash, we discussed the relationship between academia and military research — specifically, whether or not military research should occur at academic institutions at all, as opposed to national labs. In addition, we discussed the intricacies of military research, such as confidentiality and how it may complicate academic research for military purposes.

Most Pugwash members agreed that military research at academic institutions is a good thing on principle. Several members objected on the basis that universities are places of learning, which is incompatible with military goals. Most felt that this argument was misguided, as military research can be of massive public benefit, as with the Internet or the highway system. Further, universities are ideal places for research because they often employ the most capable minds. Our military research is important; it keeps Americans safe. Universities conducting military research make sure our military is equipped with the highest possible level of technology.

A more contentious point was the idea of confidentiality. While some members held that confidentiality of military research was what allowed us to truly have a technological edge, some felt this came with significant drawbacks.

Many groups who define themselves as in opposition to America are largely populated by engineers and other people who could easily replicate American technology if the research was published and publicly available. This makes it harder for America to achieve foreign policy objectives and use the military to intervene in cases like what is currently happening with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The weapons ISIS has access to are very old, but our military research is moving along so slowly that they have basically replicated American infantry and can reproduce the weapons through reverse engineering. This is why, given the ability of universities to produce good research, the confidentiality of that research also comes with the territory of trying to produce an effective military.

On the other hand, confidentiality means a lack of accountability. Mistakes in the research are not caught if they are not publicly available and peer reviewed. While a lack of peer review could be solved via policies like security-trained peer reviewers, this would allow for massive potential of security leaks and would defeat the purpose of confidential research.

However, allowing this confidential research to contain and compound errors also prevents us from achieving the technological edge confidential research is supposed to produce. In addition, situations like the one in Iraq and Syria with ISIS are inevitable when we arm and train our foreign allies. We tend to do a slipshod job, and this policy is largely ineffective. The consistent advancement of this technology giving us this ability might be tricking us into thinking we should use an empirically terrible military strategy.

Finally, the moral situation of the researchers is very precarious. While the military offers huge amounts of money to allow research to happen, a number of people are morally opposed to many actions of the military. This situation may make researchers morally responsible for people’s deaths, despite not intending for their technology to be used in such a way. While some military technology could be used for the benefit of humanity, large swathes of it are used to kill in ways not intended by researchers, and the confidentiality of the research masks the initial purpose of what is being produced. This confidentiality can hurt the reputations and legacies of people who were instrumental in achieving American foreign policy objectives.

Confidentiality is both intrinsic to military research and highly controversial. Ultimately, while confidential military research may give America an edge that cannot be replicated, the pitfalls of confidentiality could end up harming American interests, as well as those on the academic side of the equation. It is not ideal, but it may be our only chance at retaining an edge.