Military-university collaborations – an update on the UK situation

Dr Stuart Parkinson, SGR, reviews the latest developments in military involvement at UK universities.

19 September 2012

There is a long history of military involvement with UK universities. The latest phase of collaborations began in the early 2000s – against the background of the growing privatisation of government research laboratories and the early days of the ‘9/11 wars’. During this time numerous new ‘partnerships’ were founded involving the universities and the Ministry of Defence and/or major arms corporations, such as BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce. These schemes included the Defence Technology Centres, Defence and Aerospace Research Partnerships, University Technology Centres and the ‘Towers of Excellence’.  The schemes have fared differently in the years since with some – for example, the Defence Technology Centres – receiving additional funding, and others – such as the Towers of Excellence – disappearing.


How much military funding?

Clear data on the exact extent of the military-university collaborations in the UK is hard to come by. There have been several studies – by Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR), Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FoR) and the Huffington Post UK – that have examined detailed levels of funding and other more qualitative indicators of the situation. The most recent assessment was published in August 2012.1 Using freedom of information requests, this study found that 17 of the UK’s most prestigious universities – including Imperial College London, Cambridge and Oxford – received a total of over £83 million (about €91 million) over the three years up until 2011. The amounts provided to each university varied from £15.2 million for Imperial College London down to £67,000 for Durham University. Six other universities refused to provide data on their military collaborations. One further university – the London School of Economics – claimed that it received no funding at all from military sources during these years.

From this data, the average military funding per university per year for the period 2008-2011 was around £1.5 million. This level is somewhat lower than the £2.1-2.2 million found in previous reports by SGR and CAAT,2 but given variations in the methodologies of the different studies and uncertainties in the data, it would be premature to conclude that military funding is definitely falling in UK universities.



UK universities that receive funding from military sources generally justify their actions using one of more of the following arguments:

  1. The funding is only a small percentage of the university’s total funding, so it has little effect on its overall research agenda.
  2. The military-funded projects contribute to Britain’s national security.
  3. The funding is for research that has a number of applications, both military and civilian.

But do these arguments stand up to scrutiny? For claim (1), it has to be remembered that the military funding is targeted on particular departments, especially engineering and computer science. In some university departments, the military funding can represent a large proportion of the annual budget and so this can shape the research priorities of that department – gearing them towards a more militaristic agenda. It also important to bear in mind that even small amounts of funding can be influential within a university department, creating sympathy for the funders’ perspective – something which is especially important for companies with controversial ethical records.

Regarding claim (2), about Britain’s national security, it should be remembered that the arms corporations that fund university R&D are generally major exporters. Official documents3 have shown how UK military equipment has been exported to governments with poor human rights records – including those which brutally suppressed protests during the Arab uprisings, such as Libya, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. It is therefore very suspect to claim that a given piece of military research will necessarily be good for Britain’s security.

Regarding claim (3), concerning ‘dual-use’ technologies, it is certainly true that to say that research can lead to a number of applications. However, if key funding is provided by a military organisation, then it is much more likely that the application will be for military purposes.


UK funding for military R&D

Of course, behind the military funding for universities is the much larger question of military funding for research and development as a whole. By far the biggest recipients of this funding are the R&D labs within industry. Most military science and technology funding in the UK comes from the Ministry of Defence, and most of this goes directly to arms companies, with much of the remainder going to the publicly-owned Defence Science and Technology Laboratory.

In the UK, the latest official statistics show that public funding for military R&D in 2009-10 amounted to approximately £1,700 million. While this is a very large figure, the good news is that the level of this funding has been falling for much of the last 25 years.4 In contrast, in the last decade, public funding for civilian R&D has grown significantly, meaning that military R&D funding now only represents 17% of the total public spending on R&D rather than around 50% at the height of the Cold War. Nevertheless the current military R&D spend is still much too high – higher than in most other industrialised nations – so there is a need for further reductions. University campaigners – such as CAAT’s universities network5 – are very important in helping to keep up the pressure for change.

Dr Stuart Parkinson is Executive Director of Scientists for Global Responsibility, and is author/ co-author of numerous reports and articles on military involvement in science and technology.


1. CAAT (2012). Top UK universities accept millions in arms company funding. 23 August.

2. Langley C, Parkinson S, Webber P (2008). Behind Closed Doors: Military influence, commercial pressures and the compromised university. Scientists for Global Responsibility. /publications/behind-closed-doors

3. House of Commons Committees on Arms Export Controls (2011). Scrutiny of Arms Export Controls (2011). Report: HC 686. 5 April.

4. Parkinson S (2012). The fall of UK military R&D. SGR Newsletter, no.41. /publications/sgr-newsletter-41

5. CAAT (2012).

This article has been included in a booklet published by INES (International Network of Engineers and Scientists for Global Responsibility) in September 2012 entitled Commit Universities to Peace: Yes to Civil Clauses. [pdf, 7MB]