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British universities’ connections with merchants of death

ELLIOT MURPHY reveals academia’s extensive investment, research and consultancy contacts with major defence firms like BAE Systems, QinetiQ and Rolls-Royce – and how these links are used to create an ‘acceptable public face’ for arms sales

ONLY a day after sanctioning 20 Saudis for human rights abuses, Whitehall opened the possibility for renewed human rights violations in Yemen by ending a moratorium on arms sales to Riyadh. 

Commentators have argued that these actions send “contradictory signals” or “mixed messages” about Britain’s human rights concerns. 

But the unifying message since the beginning of the Yemen conflict has been a pressing desire to export arms to Riyadh, regardless of the intensity and frequency of human rights reports. 

Whitehall continues to insist that Saudi-involved human rights abuses in Yemen are “isolated incidents.” 

Reports from Human Rights Watch indicate otherwise. Using British-made arms with supposedly unmatched tactical precision, the Saudi-led coalition has hit Yemeni civilians out shopping, getting married, travelling to school and seeking medical attention.

Whitehall is not alone in providing unwavering support for Britain’s arms industry. 

In my book Arms in Academia: The Political Economy of the UK Defence Industry, I outline how a large number of major British universities have extensive investment, research and consultancy connections with companies such as BAE Systems, QinetiQ, Rolls-Royce, along with major internal defence firms. 

Helping them avoid scrutiny, British arms firms have developed something of a humane, scientific public face, partnering with major British museums and public science events,  such as New Scientist Live.

These measures allow arms firms to present themselves as being concerned with quirks of engineering and the wonders of the universe, rather than securing sales to many of the world’s most authoritarian states. 

Through a number of research programmes and graduate schemes — granting arms firms an additional labour force — university-defence links help legitimise arms sales to oppressive states. 

This public image boost is much needed. Even though arms exports are responsible for approximately 1.6 per cent of total UK exports in value, they receive 50 per cent of export credit via loans or guarantees, assisted by the taxpayer. 

It is common for UK universities to accept hundreds of thousands of pounds from the world’s largest defence contractors to aid them in the development of advanced military hardware. 

As other sources of funding disappear — partly due to Brexit, with the EU being the source of numerous scientific funding programmes, but also due to government cutbacks — university science and engineering departments are becoming beholden to the needs of their defence funders and sponsors. 

From 2015-18, 15 universities with leading engineering departments received nearly £40 million in grants from contractors. 

As these links begin to impact research criteria and even modules taught to students, a distinct lack of ethical context is provided to academics as to the ultimate output of their research. 

Many of the firms involved are often engaged in publicly beneficial aerospace work, but many others are not. 

Since the end of the cold war, and particularly since New Labour’s intense neoliberal agenda of privatising research laboratories, a much more commercialised relationship has been established between academia, the arms trade, and the Ministry of Defence.

As of this year, Britain’s universities invested over £450 million in companies complicit in Israeli apartheid through supplying weapons and technology to the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and investing in Israel’s illegal settlement economy.

At the University of Bristol, Boeing (manufacturer of the Apache attack helicopter) funds scholarships and internship for students, some of whom work directly on a drone project. 

BAE Systems has contributed £30,000 to a project at the University of Portsmouth on “understanding the moral component of conflict.” 

Throughout the period 2008-2017, Imperial College London was granted over £16m from private arms companies; how prestigious research centres like Imperial behave set clear examples for other universities.

Colleges at the University of Cambridge have also invested over £6.5m in arms manufacturing in firms including BAE Systems, United Technologies and Airbus SE. 

Not to be outdone by their traditional competitors, the University of Oxford has investments and wide institutional links with arms firms.

The University of York has received over £4m from arms firms such as BAE Systems, Raytheon and QinetiQ, with the funding going to the computer science and chemistry departments. 

The University of Glasgow has maintained investments worth £3.1m in the arms trade.

BAE Systems is also providing inducements to students to join the company in the form of masters-level apprenticeships at Cranfield University. 

Around 18 per cent of early recruits came from the most socially deprived areas of Britain, enticing poorer students with secure career promises.

Schools have also been targeted. In Liverpool in February of this year, BAE Systems presented a STEM show to the girls’ school of Belvedere Academy. 

On a video posted to the company’s Twitter profile, a BAE Systems representative asked three of the girls: “Do you think women have a place in science and engineering?” 

Making the issue of promoting engineering jobs one of addressing historical gender imbalances allows the firm to cloak its priorities within inspirational social justice rhetoric. 

It also exploits the passion and intellectual drive of young women in order to purchase social currency, appearing more progressive and ethics-oriented than actual business activities would suggest.

British arms companies enjoy rich interactions with universities, museums and public science and political events, such as Pride. 

The disconnect between science education, ethical research practices, an appreciation for British history, LGBT identities on the one hand, and direct contributions to human rights violations on the other, is of course stark. But it remains little discussed, either in the media or in academic research centres.

Elliot Murphy is a researcher at the Department of Neurosurgery, University of Texas Health Science Center. His new book, Arms in Academia: The Political Economy of the Modern UK Defence Industry (Routledge) is available for pre-order from


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