Over fifty British universities funded by Atomic Weapons Establishment

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More than fifty universities – over one third of all British universities – have received funding from the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE), the laboratory responsible for designing and manufacturing the UK's nuclear weapons, according to 'Atoms for Peace?' - a new study on AWE's research links published jointly by Nuclear Information Service and Medact (available to download at the bottom of the article).

The 'Technical Outreach' programme between AWE and universities mainly supports scientific research in the physics, materials science, high performance computing, modelling, and manufacturing disciplines.  

Although much of this work qualifies as 'blue skies' research which is not aimed at any particular application, some of it is consided to have 'dual use' potential -  the capability to be used for both benign, peaceful purposes and military purposes contributing to the development of weapons of mass destruction.  The published aims of AWE's Technical Outreach programme clearly show that the Establishment's collaboration with universities is directly intended to allow AWE to maintain its capability as the UK's centre of expertise for military nuclear science.

However, the study concludes that as well as contributing to AWE's scientific research programmes, academic collaboration also plays an important role in helping to increase the perception of AWE as a reputable scientific institution, provides a pool of graduate recruits for staff posts at AWE, and allows the Establishment to draw on expertise and facilities at universities to support its work.  

As well as providing direct financial payments to universities to undertake research work, AWE also funds academic posts and studentships and provides support for conferences and training.  Five universities have agreed 'Strategic Alliances' with AWE (Bristol, Cambridge, Cranfield, Heriot-Watt and Imperial College) and receive long-term funding for wider research programmes.   

AWE also has developed academic partnerships with government research laboratories such as the National Physical Laboratory and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, professional scientific and engineering institutes, and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

Limited information is publicly available from official sources on research funded by AWE in UK universities, and the results of the two year investigation by Nuclear Information Service and Medact is believed to be the first time that information on the topic has been collected and subjected to open scrutiny.

The study concludes that ethical committees in universities and AWE itself should be more pro-active in providing advice to researchers who receive funds from AWE, that  AWE should publish an annual report detailing the programmes it has funded in universities, and that an independent audit of the impact of AWE funding on research in universities should be periodically undertaken to assess the results, effectiveness, and value for money from such funding.

To help universities and researchers navigate ethical issues arising from participating in research work funded by AWE, the report presents a set of guidelines to help in considering professional and ethical issues related to such work.

Pete Wilkinson, Director of Nuclear Information Service said: “While some of the research work funded by the Atomic Weapons Establishment in British universities provides benefits to society and is welcome, work which will allow the UK to retain and develop its nuclear weapons over the long term has no place on the campus.

“Many scientists frown on research which contributes to the development of weapons of mass destruction, however indirectly, and  our study found that AWE values its academic outreach programme as much for the acceptance it buys for AWE's own scientists in reputable academic circles as for its scientific findings.

“Universities and individual researchers are responsible for ensuring that their work meets accepted ethical standards, and our report aims to warn them of the risks from being seduced into murky waters by the lure of AWE's cash”.

Dr David McCoy, Chair of Medact said:  “Many aspects of scientific research work funded by the Atomic Weapons Establishment are conducted in sensitive and controversial areas, raising complex ethical and legal issues.

“There are clear international norms against the use and possession of weapons of mass destruction, recognised by a number of international legal treaties, including the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty, which require states holding nuclear weapons to take steps towards disarmament.  Researchers should ask themselves whether a research programme is likely to support or undermine such norms before deciding to accept any funding from AWE”.


One of the things to consider here is that military industry (and most likely AWE) contract unis to do work because it's cheaper. Also, there's much lower risk- you don't have to build expensive plant or facilities or hire the researchers / engineers and look after them yourself- they're already there and so you can experiment on things ('blue skies') which could make you alot of money. It's a classic means of socialising cost and risk and privatising profit. AWE is owned by Serco, Lockheed Martin and Jacobs remember.

So while AWE might spend X million a year we need to ask what that research is really worth to them i.e. are unis being sold cheap? And who will keep potentially lucrative intellectual property rights if blue skies work yields something useful? This is an especially important question at a time of budget cuts to higher education and student debt ballooning.

Moreover, do AWE get matched funding from research councils like military industry do for their work at Unis? Essentially this is a way of subsidising the industry, intervening in the market to prop up the uncompetitive parts of companies like BAE Systems and Roll Royce etc. The bigger question here is that progressives should be highlighting this and saying- why isn't civil / green technology being supported by government like this? This leads into the question of change.

The question of ethics committees has been raised. Researchers should also consider pushing for and seeking out socially beneficial / green research. But if the problem is the skewed priorities of UK industry (given power of big pharma, oil/gas and arms companies which have great influence over R&D in UK) then shouldn't this be the focus of change i.e. pushing for a new industrial strategy in the UK that supports green/civil technology? Without unions / collectives of uni workers acting together to demand this then even if one uni put together a good ethics committee then industry will just go elsewhere.

Re: The AWE and UK universities: ‘Atoms for Peace?’(12/February 2014)
This event was interesting but a bit frustrating. Although there were clearly panel differences, the panel members did not challenge each other’s positions. The old maxim – he who sups with the devil should use a long spoon - is obviously a jocular way of saying don’t do deals with Satan, and not a piece of practical advice.. The long spoon is a metaphor for mortal danger. So do not put yourself in that position. There are no such spoons. A researcher who accepts funding from AWE supports the AWE enterprise, which is to maintain and advance Britain’s nuclear weapons programme. No researcher who believes such weapons to be morally wrong/useless/illegal in international law will take any such AWE funding. Those who accept the money accept the weapons. It is not a ‘curate’s egg’ with ‘good’ parts (another misunderstood metaphor). It is not useful to look at the details of the research project. They are themselves a façade. Cooperation traps us in the engine devised by our enemy. We are then being used by the system that we try to critique. We help the juggernaut along, throwing flowers to the boys and girls as the victims ahead are crushed. It calls for a straightforward moral decision by the researcher about the enterprise. We need know no more.
It is harder and certainly different for the university as a body. All research projects must obey the same rules. The research must be public (presented at meetings and publishable in journals). It must be legal (laws of the land). It must be accepted by the ethics committee (human and animal experiments etc). It must be open to all (no security clearances). But it will be no business of that committee to apply rules to AWE grants that do not apply to others. The university cannot set unique rules for AWE. But the university itself should also not initiate finding funds by grant or contract. That initiative should be the researcher’s alone. So university grant administrators should not look further into details. At the most, in a very difficult case, they might seek a quiet chat with the applicant off the record. Even that might be a step too far. The real buck should always stop in the laboratory.

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