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CPSR Newsletter Vol 19, Number 3
Volume 19, Number 3 The CPSR Newsletter Summer 2001

Some Thoughts on Military Funding -
Spring 1984 (Volume 2 No. 2)

by Terry Winograd - CPSR/Palo Alto and Dept. of Computer Science, Stanford University

When an individual refuses military funding, is it a "symbolic act" or something with a recognizable political effect? Over the past years, I have avoided applying for military funding but, by doing it privately. I have avoided a wider responsibility to influence others. I share the thoughts that follow in the hope that they may have a greater effect in the world


Like many computer professionals. I was supported under large ARPA grants during my graduate work and first few years of teaching. Since 1975, when I got off Stanford's large Artificial Intelligence Lab grant, I have had a mixture of partial support from other sources, and have at times come under fire for not doing my share to bring in faculty salary offset money (which the department counts on). People have often pointed out to me that DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) or ONR (Office of Naval Research) would be happy to get proposals for various aspects of my research. In fact, at one point when I was seeking foundation funds for basic research on software development, I was told essentially, "We can't fund that because it is something that would obviously get DARPA support, and we use our money for things that wouldn't otherwise get a chance."

The Individual and the Collective

In understanding why I don't want to work with military funding, it is important to recognize the importance of collective efforts, and the fallacy of taking an individualistic view. The standard arguments for taking the military’s money are all of the form: "What difference would it make if I didn't? Somebody else would...." (in fact there are various opinions as to what someone else would do, as discussed below). Consider an analogy. Imagine that everyone in my neighborhood burns their garbage, resulting in noxious pollution. I say that I am going to quit burning my garbage. In some sense it is a symbolic act. N-1 people burning the garbage will produce essentially the same level of pollution, and I will end up having to pay for a trash hauler. But of course, if we all quit burning it we would all breathe better, and that's where the collective effect comes in. If I take the view that the rest of the world is a "fixed effect" then indeed anything I do is useless. The issue is to ask what it is that we are all doing together, and what we all might do differently, then to look at ways in which individuals can make changes.

Is Military-directed Research Bad?

The first obvious question is whether there is a problem at all. My attitude makes no sense to someone who sees the scientific support of U. S. military goals as positive. If you believe that for some reason (to fight global communism, to keep our country the top military power in the world, etc.) it is your patriotic duty to help the military, then it of course makes sense to take their funding and do the best you can. We might argue over whether this policy actually leads to national security and whether it leaves a future for the world, but the issue certainly isn't that of funding.

I believe that increased levels of military technology will not help the future of this country, and in fact will be counterproductive. I do not want to actively participate in increasing the killing power of the military, and refuse to work on projects whose applications are primarily weapons related. In the rest of this I will be addressing those who agree that in some way or another military goals and programs (as defined by the Pentagon and implemented through their spending policies) are wrong.

This stance (along with the refusal to do classified work) is fairly widespread in the university world. It is not at all universal, and there are plenty of examples of purely military research under university auspices (such as the University of California management of the Livermore nuclear weapons labs). But the great majority of academic researchers (in computer science and in other fields as well) would rather not do weapons work. They go to some length to characterize their work as "basic research," which, although it may have military applications, will have a wide range of potentially beneficial applications as well.

What, then, is the problem with taking military money to do research that I myself have selected, and for which I see positive applications? What is wrong with getting ONR or DARPA money for a project that I have applied for grants from other sources to do?

My answer here is that in addition to the world danger created by the weapons spiral, there is also a strong danger in an increasing role for the military in the U. S. in general. As an employer, a purchaser, a lobbying group, a trainer of people, and many other things, they have a negative influence on attitudes and practices. Once again, this is not the place to go into detail, and there may be those who think military governments are better. My view is based on wanting to decrease the overall militarization of the country.

By allowing the military to be the largest sponsor of university research, we give them tremendous power over its direction and over the conduct of individuals within the university. This power is rarely wielded bluntly (although recent attempts to keep non-classified work from visitors, to require preauthorization from the military before the publication of unclassified research, and to block foreign students from access to university research come close). It is easy to take a naive individualistic view and say that even though the military sponsors the research, it is the individual faculty member who chooses the topic, writes the proposal, and directs the work.

The fallacy is once again the failure to look at the larger collective. DOD does not need to tell you what to do. They need only announce that some large new amount of funds is available for work in area X, and to stop funding proposals in area Y. They do not need to come to campus and squash radical demonstrations. It is more effective just to let it be known that they find the atmosphere on campus too hostile, and that they may find it necessary to switch more research to think tanks to avoid problems. Once the university has become dependent on military funds for its survival, it is very hard to take a stand on some "minor" issue which could jeopardize everything. A few minor issues soon add up to a lot of control.

Finally, an individual who is being supported by the military will be somewhat more hesitant to be critical of U.S. military policy or of military spending. It is doubtful that the DOD would do something as heavy-handed as retaliating by canceling a contract or grant, but there is no guarantee of what they will be thinking when the next round of funding is given out. Also, there is the natural human tendency to want to feel good about what we are doing, and to avoid thinking about those aspects that might feel unsettling.

In addition, there is a pernicious overall effect of using the Pentagon as the nation’s channel for supporting institutions of higher education with federal funds The balance of research and teaching, of science and humanities, of graduate and undergraduate education are all shifted to suit the needs and tastes of the generals. And as mentioned above, every additional dollar that goes through their budget (regardless of what it ends up being used for) gives them additional economic influence.

But What About......

Many people who agree with my basic attitude towards the military, and who may grant the logic in these arguments, still feel they must (or want to) take military research money. There are a number of common arguments :

1. I don’t like militarism, but if we don’t do military research the Russians will anyway.

This gem relates to the larger issues mentioned above. I simply do not believe that increasing the military technology of this country is the way to get national or world security, in spite of whatever the Russians do. There are many articles in the current anti-nuclear movement supporting this.

2. I don’t take the money, somebody else will anyway.

The answer to this should be obvious from the discussion of collective effects above. If we can get a consensus not to take it, nobody will. Even if we get only a partial consensus it will greatly reduce the military influence.

3.If I don’t take the money, the military will buy more bombs with it.

This is an obvious application of the fixed effect fallacy. Part of the Pentagon’s argument before the budget committee is that they need a lot of money to do the scientific research. Without that research there is no reason to believe they would get the same amount of money. Of course they might, but it depends on the overall societal vows and pressures that go along with a move away from military funding. Besides, the total university research budget is a tiny drop in the military bucket. Cancelling all of the DARPA university contracts wouldn’t buy one more nuclear submarine.

4.It doesn’t matter who pays for it, the military can use it

So what if the government decides to sponsor everything through NSF. If it has military uses they will use it anyway.’ This is one of those arguments that rests on taking an all-or-nothing view. Of course there is no part of this society that is not connected to the military. If I design a computer for Xerox, Xerox will be willing to sell it to the Army. If I design a better pair of shoes, who is the largest single buyer of shoes in the country? Nothing I do that benefits people through technology will be totally ‘clean’ of military benefit. Ail that is safe from contamination is isolation in my home-grown commune in the hills.

But the fact that there is no clear line does not mean that there is no difference. If I am studying the ways to get the most thorough pattern of coverage for little metal needles dispersed by an explosive charge, I am clearly doing highly military research, although a clever enough person might invent a pacific use. On the other hand, if I develop penicillin (although it was of great benefit to the military in dealing with wounded soldiers), I can feel that the overall benefit is to society as a whole. Each project must be seen in this light, and even within computer science there is a spectrum. LOGO may be useful for training sailors, but its emphasis has been on working with children. Distributed sensor systems may have peacetime uses (I was told by a prominent artificial intelligence researcher that they weren’t purely military since they might be used somehow in hospital intensive care units), but they are 99% intended for monitoring the movement of people and machinery in hostile territory. There are differences, and they are affected by the choices and desires of those who set up the funding programs.

There are those (such as Weizenbaum) who believe that the net effect of all technological development (computers being a prime example) will be negative–if not because of military applications, then because of other effects on the quality of life. There is no clear-cut answer to this (and indeed the issue needs to be taken more seriously than it generally is within technological institutions), but I don’t myself believe it. I think there are better and worse technologies, and that we are better off to explore the differences than to abandon the field.

5.People doing the research should be those who are sensitive to the political issues.

It is pure self-deception to believe that the political attitudes of those doing scientific research (no matter what they are) will be listened to by the agency that funds it. They don’t ask you for your advice on arms limitation, just on pipelined processors. I do believe, though, that the parallel objection is valid on the more general scale of who does the scientific and technological work within the society as a whole. Being "experts" does (rightly or wrongly) bring with it a degree of access to public opinion that is politically important, and that can be used for positive purposes.

6.The military does a better job of research funding.

This is the argument I hear most often from people in high positions in the computer science academic community. Their experience is that military funding of computer science has been more efficient, more effective, and has had fewer strings attached than any other source of funding. They may be right. It is clear from my own experience that getting funding through NSF can be a frustrating and time-consuming process, and that the choice of scientific goals is influenced by many more political considerations. This is due to the nature of the peer review process (both slow and political) and the sensitivity to congressional scrutiny (which includes special interests and pressures for geographical distribution of funding).

This is perhaps the most seductive and most dangerous argument. Legend has it that Mussolini won favor among the Italian people because he made the trains run on time. The ability to get things done quickly and efficiently is always a strong point of central authoritarianism, not democracy. The danger is in a gradual process of legitimization, in which more and more power is placed under military control because of frustration with the difficulties of democratic processes.

7.I need the money and can’t get it (or can’t get it without much greater difficulty) anywhere else.

This is a legitimate argument which forces each individual to examine his or her own priorities. It is perfectly logical to grant all of the points made above, and to take the stand that your own individual good is best served by taking the money (which I need to do the research, which I need to get tenure, ....) even though there are negative consequences. It is important not to get moralistic here and label anyone who takes such a stand as immoral. I can afford to write this paper because I do have tenure. I didn’t do it when I was an assistant professor. I do not believe that it is realistic now to push for the computer science department to stop taking all military funding. Given the national situation, it would be economic suicide for our research and educational programs. The point is that the way out is to take more collective action, such that the larger pattern shifts and it does not require an individual sacrifice to take a stand. Of course, individuals may choose to make sacrifices either as a moral position, or as a way of calling attention to the issues.

The patterns can be shifted tin many ways. The government can be pressured to change the overall distribution of support. We can look for areas of research that are not as capital-intensive (in fact, I believe that might be better for the intellectual quality of the department, independent of the military issues). We can look into ways to develop other sources of funding (as has gone on with industry, although this raises its own problems).

So... ?

Having laid all this out, I don’t have the answers. I don’t think a simplistic approach (stop all military funding, or ignore the problem) will solve things. It will take creative work to be effective.

--Spring 1984


Terry Winograd, CPSR/Palo Alto, April 2002

Eighteen years ago when this article first appeared in the CPSR newsletter, the world situation was quite different from today. World politics was dominated by the Cold War; Ronald Reagan was finishing his first term in office and railing against the "Evil Empire"; and the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction was being challenged by the idea of a "peace shield" -- the Star Wars plan. In that context, the acceptance of military funding was entangled with support of a program for new military technologies to increase U.S military dominance, in a spiral that many of us believed could leave to full-scale nuclear war.

Things have changed in many ways: communism is no longer a worldwide threat; the vision of making nuclear missiles "impotent and obsolete" has been abandoned; and the nation's scientific forces are no longer being marshaled to push forward traditional weapons programs.

But as the old saying tells us, the more that changes, the more things stay the same. The Evil Empire has been replaced by the "Axis of Evil". The weapons labs are busy producing a new breed of "small nukes" to blow up Ben Laden's bunkers, and the scientific community is being urged to participate in new initiatives to fight terrorism. And, amazingly enough, the Star Wars program has managed to survive all these years. Tens of billions of dollars have been paid to large aerospace companies for development, and in 2001, President Bush called for accelerated development of the "National Missile Defense" system, and withdrew from the ABM treaty to permit the system's development and deployment.

Soon after the attack of September 11, the Pentagon put out a call for new approaches to combat terrorism. The announcement "specifically seeks help in combating terrorism, defeating difficult targets, conducting protracted operations in remote areas, and developing countermeasures to weapons of mass destruction"


Current requests for proposals for government research funding include large-scale programs to develop information mining techniques to track down potential threats and terrorists by integrating and searching over a wide variety of public and secret data sources. It is interesting to note that the evolution of CPSR's focus over the years towards issues of privacy has put us back into the main line of debate for the currently contested military technologies.

The issues of research funding stay the same. Computers play a central role in military operations. The technologies being proposed can have both potentially beneficial and potentially repressive uses. The goal of stopping terrorism, in spite of the way it is being distorted by the Bush administration, cannot be simply dismissed as abuse of power and does not have the destabilizing influence of the arms race we have long opposed. So there is more ambivalence about whether supporting the positive aspects will justify the potential dangers and abuses. Academic researchers will not be asked to put real systems into place (in fact the current mood in Washington emphasizes industrial rather than academic participation), but by doing the underlying research we implicitly support the eventual application of technologies for monitoring and tracking, not just terrorists but everyone.

I wish that things had gotten simpler---that our nation's policies had moved in a direction I could wholeheartedly support by doing research on its behalf. It would also be simpler, though not desirable, if the government had moved to an extreme where the clear moral position would be one in total principled opposition. As always, the world does not move towards simplicity, and the political and moral dilemmas remain. I hope that in reading this article against a new world background you will be provoked to take a clear look at your own position and principles, and that you will find CPSR a context in which to engage them and to find ways towards collective action.

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