Should Scientists Support Hi-Tech Warfare?

by Jim Ingalls with members of the Caltech Progressive Coalition on 24th January 2000

“…From now on institutions for learning and research will more and more have to be supported by grants from the state… Is it at all reasonable that the distribution of the funds… should be entrusted to the military? To this question every prudent person will answer: ‘No!’ ” -Albert Einstein, 1947

Last Friday President Bill Clinton visited our campus to announce the fiscal year (FY) 2001 science and technology budget. Caltech has been ranked the top undergraduate educational institution in the United States, and is one of the most competitive centers of science and technology research in the world, so Clinton’s science budget affects many of us directly. As you may have noticed, when the representative of US political leadership addresses its technical leadership on science and technology research, he stresses the positive side of his program. It is important to acknowledge also the destructive uses of science and technology research.

The “ivory tower” insulates us from many of the consequences of our work, so perhaps we don’t realize that yearly, 81% of the research conducted at Caltech is publicly funded, and that 24% of such funding comes from either the Department of Defense (DOD) or the Department of Energy (DOE), and may be used for military purposes. For example, Caltech is a member of the Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative, which oversees the DOE-sponsored $19 million Center for Simulating Dynamic Responses of Materials. Scientists and engineers who receive funding from this Center are creating a “virtual shock physics laboratory” whose main goal is to simulate the detonation of high explosives. Fully 40% of all applied science research at Caltech is paid for directly by the DOD.

But Caltech is not unusual in its pursuit of military-financed research. Although President Clinton proudly announced a $227 million increase in US funding for nanotechnology research and a $605 million increase in funding for information technology research, he did not mention that 18% and 21% of these increases, respectively, will be provided by the DOD. In 1998, the Clinton Administration boasted of its commitment to civilian research and development (R&D), which at $170 billion over 5 years was at its highest level ever. Yet 50% of the total US R&D budget is still for defense research. More imortantly, even though the total defense R&D spending has been declining since its post World War II peak in 1987, for the past four fiscal years (1997-2000), the destructive program entitled “weapons activities” has had its funding increased $525 million (36%), at the expense of programs like “environmental restoration and waste management,” which has been cut by $90 million (45%) during the same period. In constant dollars, the defense R&D budget is only a few percentage points below its second-highest postwar peak of 1967, when the Indochina Wars were in full swing.

This military focus parallels the overall spending profile of the US Government. In FY 2000, the only Cabinet-level US department to get an (inflation-adjusted) funding increase over the previous year was the DOD (an increase of 12%). President Clinton signed the Defense Authorization Act on 15 October 1999, allocating $289 billion for the military. While total international military spending decreases, US military spending increases. The US military budget is more than 5 times that of Russia, and it is more than 19 times the combined spending of Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Sudan (the Pentagon’s “7 most likely adversaries”). Furthermore, the US is the world’s largest arms exporter, supplying 36% of the world’s arms deliveries during the period 1989-1998. The consequences are devastating. For instance, decades of US arms sales to Indonesia enabled that country to illegally and brutally occupy the territory of East Timor. Twenty four years of domination and hundreds of thousands of dead and disappeared Timorese later, and finally East Timor is an independent state, no thanks to US weapons.

We can speak dispassionately of “stress wave propagation in an elastomer binder,” but perhaps some day Caltech’s “virtual shock physics laboratory” will be used to study shrapnel propagation in human skin, such as occurred during the NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia. More than 1,100 cluster bombs, “the most savage weapons of modern warfare,” according to BBC Correspondent John Simpson, were dropped on Kosovo and Serbia by the US last spring. Condemned by international humanitarian organizations (they violate the Geneva convention because of their indiscriminate nature), when cluster bombs explode they send 200,000 “bomblets” of shrapnel over a wide radius. Cluster bombs have a 5-30% failure to detonate rate. Lodged in the ground, unexploded bombs act as landmines. In the first month after the NATO airstrikes, about 150 Kosovars were killed or injured by “land mines or unexploded ordnance,” including cluster bomb fragments. In the Persian Gulf, over 1,200 Kuwaitis were killed in the same fashion, and they weren’t even the “enemy”! Ironically, the Clinton Administration withdrew from the 1997 international negotiations to ban landmines.

The results of US military spending permeate the international landscape. No human being is untouched by the US military apparatus. Perhaps the most painful exposure is being had in Iraq, where since the December 1998 “Desert Fox” operation, the US and allies have flown a total of 28,000 sorties and expended over 1,800 bombs and missiles in strikes against 450 separate targets in Iraq. Current contingency operations in Iraq are estimated to entail annual costs of about $1 billion. And on the ground, the deadliest “weapons of mass destruction” have proven to be the economic sanctions insisted on by the US, which are crippling Iraq’s social infrastructure.

Scientists are rewarded financially when their research supports military goals, but to expect such work not to be harnessed for destructive purposes is either ignorance or insincerity. Shouldn’t the responsibility of scientists for the consequences of their work extend beyond their wallets? US scientists ushered in the nuclear era, and now the US is one of the few countries which refuses to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty. According to opponents of the treaty, “nuclear deterrence” is more important than peace and safety. At any rate DOE’s nuclear weapons programs and scientists continue to be funded. In fact, between 1997 and 2000, DOE “atomic energy defense activities” research has not incurred a loss of funding; to the contrary, over the past four years it has received a boost of $440 million (18%) from the government.

Is it healthy that a nation which faces no credible military threat should continue to allocate half of its research funds for military purposes? As scientists we are accustomed to thinking, “I only do basic science” or, “I’m just doing what I’m told,” but what is the difference between passive acceptance and active participation when the consequences are the same? Recall Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite who was horrified by the violent uses of his invention and later dedicated his royalties to a foundation for peace. Are scientists like Nobel, Einstein, and Caltech’s own Linus Pauling doomed to extinction?