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Posted: Aug 22, 2007

More soldiers in nanotechnology labs?

(Nanowerk Spotlight) Flawed government thinking is driving a rapid expansion in the military influence over science and technology, says a new briefing from Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR). US government spending on military research and development (R&D) is soaring (up 57% since 2001), while the UK government has rolled out two new military technology strategies in the last two years. Factors such as these are contributing to an expansion of military involvement in US and UK universities. As far as nanotechnology is concerned, and as we have reported here before, the military is the largest investor in the U.S. Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). The Department of Defense (DoD)'s share of the $6.6 billion NNI budget since the program's inception is over 30%, or $2 billion. While a part of this military R&D spend goes to the internal laboratories of the various parts of the armed services (navy, army, air force) and DARPA, another parts goes to universities as research grants or as part of MURI (Multi-University Research Initiative). The SGR, in its new briefing, documents how government funding for military R&D dwarfs that spent on social and environmental programs across the industrialized world. The group highlights how the military involvement in R&D continues to support a narrow weapons-based security agenda. SRG argues that this marginalizes a broader approach to security, which would give much greater priority to supporting conflict prevention by helping to address the roots of conflict. As part of this case, they point out how R&D that aims to help tackle poverty, climate change and ill-health - and thus help to provide basic security for human populations - is under-funded compared with military R&D.
The SGR briefing also highlights the fact that, despite the entry into force of the Freedom of Information Act, the ability to obtain detailed information on military involvement in R&D, especially within universities, remains highly problematic and further reform is needed. This certainly is true for the 'black programs' that are under tight control of the military research outfits. However, the MURI programs are in the open domain.
The URI program is a multi-agency DoD program that supports research teams whose efforts intersect more than one traditional science and engineering disciplines.
Recent examples for MURI nanotechnology funding:
A $7.5 million grant from the Army Research Office to scientists from Virginia Tech, the University of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State University, and Drexel University to develop electromechanical devices and high-performance membranes using ionic liquids.
The GEMs project at GeorgiaTech focused on a revolutionary new paradigm for fabricating micro/nanodevices: the synergistic use of genetic engineering, biological replication, and shape-preserving chemical conversion to generate enormous numbers of identical Genetically-Engineered Micro/nanodevices.
We were also able to find one MURI program that definitely will have a positive impact on the rest of society. It deals with risk research on engineered nanoparticles and its goal is to determine those nanoparticle characteristics that are associated with undesirable/desirable effects at a cellular and organismal level. Although, to inject a little caveat here, the stated goal of the military is "to identify potential health risks and implement optimal and appropriate safety practices for both war fighters and defense product developers" - no mentioning of civilians here.
The MURI is only one part of the funding opportunities through the DoD's Basic Research Program. This program "supports a wide range of activities spanning many scientific and engineering disciplines to provide a strong technical foundation to meet the diverse needs of the DoD Services, agencies, and organizations."
Some of the numbers in the new SGR briefing are quite staggering: Global military expenditure now exceeds $1.2 trillion a year. In the US alone, government spending on military R&D is expected to reach a massive $78 billion in 2007, a 57% increase since 2001. in 2004, the governments of the OECD countries (most industrialized countries) collectively spent approximately $85 billion on military R&D compared with only $50 billion on R&D for health and environmental protection. Equivalent spending on R&D in the field of renewable energy key for tackling climate change was less than $1 billion that year.
The SGR briefing states that "the strategic security rationale, especially within the USA and UK, continues to be a high-technology, weapons-based, networked approach based on what some call the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). This 'revolution' is critically dependent on information and communications technology, aided by computer networks and robotic devices. It draws heavily upon the scientific and engineering expertise from the in-house R&D facilities of military corporations and government, but it also increasingly depends upon expertise in UK and US universities."
The reason why the military is pushing hi-tech, and especially nanotechnology, so hard is the hope to develop 'game-changing technology' (see our Spotlight "Nanotechnology and the Pentagon's 21st century military visions")
This is what drives RMA which, in general, encourages a mindset that emphasizes a military technological approach to dealing with international disputes rather than relying on more human-centered means to avert war, reduce conflict or plan for peace. Technology is arguably supplanting a more nuanced approach to foreign policy. With this high technology deployed as part of a package comprising overwhelming force of arms, the assumption is that quick military victories can be achieved while at the same time keeping civilian casualties low.
The shortcomings of the RMA approach to conflict (and post-conflict reconstruction) have become all too clear recently, so no need to go into that here.
Another concern raised by the SGR is the risk for the science and technology skills base. "Given the limited supply of physical scientists and engineers (at least in the Western world), a further key concern is the competition for these professionals between the powerful military sector and other sectors such as cleaner technology. Military industry has long enjoyed strong political support. So, given the raft of major projects either underway or planned it seems unlikely that the government would allow skills shortages to become problematic for the sector. Against this, sectors like renewable energy are trying to expand to meet the urgent threat of climate change. However, it will be difficult to achieve this expansion if skills availability does not increase and the military sector is able to use its political and financial strength to ensure it is not the one that faces a skills shortfall."
The efforts to embed military R&D in universities could also have a far more subtle impact. SGR notes that it is often from our universities that perspectives critical of those of the powerful, such as the military, emerge. "However, when government policy, through a range of initiatives, pushes the universities into developing closer ties with the military and acting more like commercial entities with more resources devoted to projects with financial aims, then dissenting voices can be marginalized. This problem is compounded by the large number of closures and amalgamation of departments in physical sciences and engineering, leaving academic staff feeling vulnerable and limiting sources of independent critiques of security."
By , Copyright Nanowerk LLC

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