Government entities are investing into research at UC San Diego. With the military entering the fray, scientists face the ethical ramifications of their research eventually being militarized.
Scientific research touches some part of every person’s life. You are reading this article on some screen right now, on a device with that plugs into a wall to “charge.” Science has evolved so rapidly that it would be impossible to explain that last sentence to someone who lived in the 18th century. Even excluding physical innovation, the impact of research pervades our culture, constantly reshaping the knowledge humanity generally regards as proven facts.
Science, for example, has revolutionized how mental health is viewed and treated today in the United States compared to 65 years ago, when people were institutionalized for any hint of neurodivergence.
Due in part to advances in psychology, experts have changed what they categorize as mental illness and helped develop new, more constructive types of therapy. Further understanding of neurology has changed how mental illness is described and treated. Not to mention understanding the physical causes of mental illness has helped reduce the stigma around mental health as a whole.
Without research into chemistry and biology, scientists could not develop safe and effective medications to treat mental illness.
UC San Diego is world-renowned for its scientific research. In 2019, UCSD took in $1.35 billion in research funding. Of that total, $101 million came from the Department of Defense.
This huge influx of resources opens the door for the development of innovations that improve people’s lives. Yet in all the eagerness to push the limits of scientific achievement, questions about the influence of the sponsors of research have gone unanswered.
Charles Thorpe, a professor of the sociology of science and technology at UCSD, provided some insight into the repercussions of increased military funding of scientific research. He drew attention to the practical difficulties in truly parsing out the influences of military spending on research. Authors of press releases about research tend to word the statements in ways that can be difficult for individuals outside the discipline to understand, and often, the practical uses of such research are not clearly stated.
To explain this phenomenon, Thorpe borrowed a term from Jeff Schmidt, a physicist who coined the phrase “social significance concealment game.”
Schmidt used the phrase to evaluate the purpose of the sometimes very technical, but also vague language scientists use to explain their research. Schmidt noted that this strategy was especially utilized by scientists involved in potentially controversial research like weapons development.
They can describe all the minute details of their research in cell imagining and the reader still might not know if they specialize in botany or immunology.
Possibly, scientists are not at liberty to say what they are actually researching, but the unclear nature of their language could also be intentional. With the lack of transparency, abstracts describing projects directly related to the development of weapons will read the same as research into coral life cycles.
“Scientists involved in weapons research conceal from their academic colleagues and students and from the public the actual military nature of that research, giving descriptions of it that sound like it’s basic blue skies academic research, when in fact when you read an account of it by the military agency that funds the research, you see its real social purpose, which is the production of weapons,” Thorpe told the UCSD Guardian.
If the true aim of research is concealed to a certain extent, more context clues can help discern what research has been militarized. One helpful indicator of the true uses of research is who chooses to foot the bill. According to their website, The Department of Defense’s mission is to “provide the military forces needed to deter war and ensure our nation’s security.” Yet, the connection between this aim and all of the research they fund is not always abundantly clear.
For example, a neurobiology research project focusing on cell morphology received a grant in the form of research equipment from the Department of Defense. In a bulletin from UCSD, Shelley Halpain, a professor of neurobiology, was celebrated as a recipient of a (DURIP) award from the Department of Defense.
“She and her colleagues are using advanced fluorescence microscopy to measure energy demand within single synapses, which are less than one femtoliter (500 times smaller than a single grain of salt) in volume,” UCSD wrote in the bulletin. “Their findings may help inform the design of efficient, bio-inspired information processing systems.”
The description provided by UCSD relayed few specifics or details that would relay the applications of this research. This could be an…
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