Science and technology

from Brian Martin, Uprooting War (London: Freedom Press, 1984); this is the revised 1990 version.
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Science and technology are crucial to modern warfare. Technology is involved in the form of guns and jets; science is involved in developing technologies, planning for war and organising military forces.

Scientific facts and theories are not neutral bodies of knowledge. They are, after all, more easily used for some purposes than other purposes, and more easily by some groups than others. A calculation of the effect of upper atmospheric wind speeds on a moving object is of special use for determining missile trajectories. A formula for storage in water of heat energy from the sun is of special use in designing solar buildings.

Some parts of scientific knowledge are very general, such as differential equations. Even they are more useful for some purposes than others. Social justice groups seldom spend their time solving differential equations!

The same applies to technology. Tanks are designed for a specific function, and so are mousetraps, even though they can be used for some other purposes if necessary.

Of course many parts of science and technology can be used for peaceful purposes, and they often are. But they are still part of the war system, because large parts of them are crucial to the organised use of violence by militaries. Without technological support systems and the state-created system of scientific and technological production, modern military forces could hardly function.

Instead of thinking of science as a body of knowledge and of technology as physical objects, it is more useful to think of them as social relationships involving people, actions, knowledge and physical objects. It is the social system of science and technology which is a root of war. Theories and artefacts are the products of the science-technology system, just as policies are the products of bureaucracies or sexist behaviours are the products of patriarchy. The key to understanding the nature of science and technology lies not in ideas and hardware but in social relationships.

I will begin by briefly describing the straightforward links between science, technology and war operating through military influence on research and development and the criteria for important problems. Then I will outline the most critical connection between science, technology and war, namely the similarity between the structure of the scientific and engineering community and of the other bureaucracies of the war system.


A large fraction of funding for science and technology is directly or indirectly for the purposes of war. It is often noted that somewhere between a quarter and a half of scientists and engineers worldwide are engaged on military-related projects.

Because there is so much war-oriented funding, it is not surprising that many research areas and applications are oriented to war. In weather research, for example, military interests play a strong role because of the importance of weather conditions and predictions to military operations. There is also a strong interest in studying weather modification for military purposes.

Social sciences are also brought into play. The most infamous example is Project Camelot, in which studies of the potential for internal war in Latin America were undertaken for United States military and political interests. Funding is a primary reason why there is much more scientific study of the factors contributing to solidarity of soldiers and of civilians in war than on the solidarity of movements for self-management.

Whole fields of scientific research can arise due to military influences. Operations research, the mathematical analysis of situations to determine optimal courses of action, grew out of the study of military problems by scientists during World War Two.

War also influences the whole direction of technological innovation. Technologies do not develop spontaneously, 'uncontrolled,' into new weapons systems. They must be carefully monitored, assessed, channelled and specified over many long years. Engineering specifications must be established, manufacturing facilities constructed or adapted, and military planning and technical infrastructure appropriately modified. All of this is a cold, careful process for clearly specified military ends, not spontaneous technological creation. In short, military technologies are the rational product of scientific and technological development for military purposes. Military innovations are seldom sprung unawares on military planners.

Military technological innovation is mostly but not entirely under the control of state and military elites. Elite scientists and engineers do have some influence. Those in research and development naturally want to maintain and increase their own power and prerogatives, and so favour new weapons systems that will keep them in business. The heads of the two major nuclear bomb design laboratories in the United States, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Los Alamos National Laboratory, strongly opposed the partial test ban treaty and have been instrumental in preventing agreement on a comprehensive test ban treaty, because this would inhibit the continued funding, status and role of the laboratories.

The direction of technological development in turn influences the ongoing focus of scientific research, which is at all times influenced by current technologies.

Actual or potential technological development has provided a spur for the development of scientific theory throughout the history of science. In the first several centuries of modern science, technology usually preceded scientific explanation. For example, the invention of combustion engines preceded, and stimulated, the development of thermodynamics. Since the mid 1800s, science and technology and, more generally, theory and application have become more and more interlinked.

Nuclear power is a prime example of this interaction. The massive expansion of interest in nuclear science during World War Two was due to the interest in making a devastating weapon. Nuclear power was in many ways a spinoff from nuclear weapons programmes. Nuclear power depended on physical facilities such as uranium enrichment built for making weapons grade uranium and on the technical skills gained through weapons research and development. There was also a political advantage in the early 1950s in associating nuclear technology with peaceful purposes. Once nuclear power projects were launched by several governments, they provided a strong force for expanding training and research in nuclear science and engineering. As nuclear power facilities and training in nuclear science and engineering became more widespread, so did the capability of more and more states to make nuclear weapons.

Another area of technological innovation strongly influenced by military imperatives is computing. In the 1940s and 1950s military interest in computers was primarily in number-crunching to solve problems such as designing more efficient nuclear weapons and calculating ballistic missile trajectories. The emphasis then was on large mainframe computers. In the 1970s and 1980s military interest in number-crunching has remained, but added to this is interest in microprocessors for 'smart weapons' and the like. The development of computing facilities has strongly influenced the nature of scientific research, for example by changing the criteria for elegance and solvability.

Important problems

Due to the high level of military funding for science and the military influence on the direction of technological innovation, what are seen as important scientific problems, even in the area of so-called 'pure' science, can become oriented to military interests. Nuclear physics, genetic engineering and plasma physics owe part of their prestige to their potential role in war.

More generally, the criterion for important science has become success in manipulating and controlling nature, rather than understanding nature and human interactions with it. Seeing the world as an object for manipulation is quite suited for the technical-rational mode of administration by bureaucratic elites which is at the core of the modern war system.

For example, in the case of weather research, it is highly prestigious to study complex multi-level global circulation models requiring sophisticated numerical analysis, data acquisition and computing facilities. Indeed, this type of research is virtually synonymous with doing 'scientific' research on weather. By comparison, it is a low status activity to engage in local weather prediction by obtaining information from amateurs and relying on experience and understanding of local weather patterns. It is no coincidence that research on global circulation models and similar topics, for which generous funding is available, is of at least potential military use. By contrast, local weather prediction which relies on data input from amateurs and which helps local farmers, businesses and individuals is both poorly funded and less attractive to professional military planners because it is not fully under control of military and technical personnel. Indeed, local weather prediction with input from amateurs has much more relevance to a social defence programme.

Social science research is also shaped by military funding and the prominence of military priorities in society. For example, game theory, a mathematical framework for studying conflict situations, has been widely used and adapted for modelling international conflict. This is partly because the conceptual framework of game theory, which assumes discrete 'players,' arbitrary fixed choices and a conflict of interests, is congruent with a military model of the world. In psychology, the dominant behaviourist paradigm which focusses on observable and measurable behaviour is admirably suited to the manipulation and control of humans which is essential for perpetuating the war system.

Structure of the scientific community

The modern scientific community is a body of full-time professionals, most of whom work in a bureaucratic or semi-bureaucratic setting of university, corporation or government. A large fraction of research is carried out by teams of scientists. Much research is accompanied by secrecy, especially military research. A key feature of modern science is intense specialisation. (In this section, what I say about science also applies to technology.)

These features of modern science are not timeless. Indeed, they have only become routine in the past century. Before this, scientific research was carried out by amateur, independent thinkers usually working individually. Generalists were much more common.

The professionalised, bureaucratised, government-funded, highly specialised nature of modern science is essentially an outcome of the restructuring of science to serve the modern state. The scientific community has prospered financially by state funding, but has had to pay the price of adopting an organisational form similar to the state, namely bureaucracy, and the price of orienting its work to the interests of the state. Government funding and hierarchical organisation means that the results of scientific research are available mainly to those at the top of the pyramid. A high degree of specialisation ensures that most scientists boring away at their corner of knowledge have little awareness of the wider implications of their work, and little capacity for combining with each other or with the general community to press for a redirection of research.

The bureaucratic and professional organisation of science is supported by an explanatory ideology, which basically boils down to the ideas that scientific knowledge is neutral, that a scientist's duty is to produce good research and that the use of science and technology is the responsibility of others, namely scientific or political elites. This ideology provides a justification for uncritically accepting the framework in which scientific research is done. One aspect of this framework is the war system. Thus the ideology of value-free science enables scientists to serve the war system with a clear conscience.

Scientific research is an intensely masculine occupation, being dominated by men and by masculine values of emotional aloofness, competition and the aim of domination and manipulation of nature, including humans. Given the similarity of values associated with patriarchy in science and the military, it is not surprising that science as a professional activity is so easily integrated into the bureaucratic organisational mode and so easily turned towards military purposes.

The structure of the modern scientific community is the key to its role in the war system. It is true that since its earliest days, science has been associated with war. The inventors Archimedes and Leonardo turned their talents to the problems of fighting, and since the rise of modern science many individual scientists have steered their investigations towards military purposes. But the orientation of science to war was relatively sporadic until the rise of professionalised science under the auspices of the state beginning in the late 1800s.

The process of incorporation of science into the war system was greatly accelerated by the two world wars this century. In World War One scientists clamoured to be able to devote their talents to war-making on behalf of the states with which they identified. In World War Two scientific communities were thoroughly mobilised to serve states for military ends, and this led to the continuing close connection between science and the state in the following decades.

Many top professionals see their roles expanded by an increase in war-making potential by the state. In the war economy of an industrialised country, science becomes a precious state asset, and elite scientists and technologists are inducted into the corridors of power. Even many lower-level researchers gain increased funding for jobs and increased prestige from war preparations and war. This helps explain why top war researchers are such strong opponents of any restraint on their 'freedom of scientific inquiry' and why scientists who worked to make the first nuclear weapons during World War Two have such a nostalgia for those exciting years.

The organisation of modern science into a professionalised, bureaucratic form can be seen as a shaping of science into the image of other state bureaucracies. Scientists are no longer independent of the state: they depend on it for funding, professional status and scientific priorities. The administration of science puts scientists and the results of scientific research at the beck and call of state elites.

According to this analysis, science is part of the war system rather than just a servant of it. In historical terms this should not be surprising, since the rise of modern science was part of the process of the breakdown of European feudalism and the rise of capitalism, the modern state, bureaucracy and professional military forces.

Antiwar science

What would a science look like that was oriented towards helping achieve a society without war? First, science would be used in a positive way to help create a nonviolent society. The topics for research would grow out of the needs of self-managing, self-reliant communities. One example of a worthwhile scientific research project would be to develop radio and other communications systems which are easy and effective for local communities to use as part of social defence but hard to disrupt by military forces, spy agencies or potentially repressive governments.

Second, an antiwar science would be used to help dismantle existing physical and social structures which support the war system. Antiwar scientists can spread knowledge about how the war system can be dismantled by popular action. To undertake such direct action, people need to know how to disable nuclear weapons, how to run communication systems and electrical power systems. Scientists and engineers, who now tend to monopolise such knowledge when they have it, can aid this process by exposing the workings, weaknesses, and alternatives to the infrastructure of the war system.

Finally, scientific organisation and activity, instead of being bureaucratised, specialised, state-funded (in essence, militarised) would be a harmonious part of a self-managing society. Instead of science being funded by the state, it would be one of many activities carried out by local communities. Instead of science being almost always a full-time professional activity, it would be something that most interested people could participate in. Instead of being professionalised and bureaucratised, science would be done participatively. As a result of the different research interests for science and of the different organisational base, it would inevitably follow that the knowledge frameworks of antiwar science would be different to a greater or lesser degree. The criteria for valid and important science would depend less on manipulation and control and more on fostering community understanding of nature and society and on providing tools for sustaining a democratic, just and nonviolent society.

These grand visions and goals are all very well, but what is to be done to move towards such a future? One basic approach taken by antiwar scientists has been to appeal to governments and other elites to end their war-promoting activities. One need only read the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists or most other journals of antiwar scientists to find many careful arguments against military policies of governments, many suggestions for what governments should do, and many appeals to state elites to restrain their war activities. But as I argued in chapter 1, it is futile to expect logic and argument to convince elites that they should undermine the system which gives them status and power.

More promisingly, on many occasions antiwar scientists have taken their arguments to the general public. But this effort has been limited in two ways. First, mobilisation of the general public has been done via appeals to fear, the fear of nuclear war in particular. Second, the aim of mobilising the public has been largely to apply greater pressure on governments.

Most antiwar scientists have not aimed to reconstruct society to remove the sources of war, but rather just to somehow eliminate war within the existing structures. Such a reformist approach is not surprising. The beliefs and actions of scientists, like others, are conditioned by their training, social situation and career pressures. Scientists are trained to be paradigm-bound problem-solvers, specialists within a narrowly defined area. The social system of science does not encourage critical attention to pervasive and subtle political and social assumptions underlying science and society. Furthermore, the career structure of scientists is bound up with the bureaucracies of the war system. It is not easy to accept that opposing war requires reexamination of the foundations of one's profession and career.

A more fundamental challenge to professionalised science has been made by the radical science movement. Especially since about 1970, small groups of activists have formulated a critique of science and taken action to oppose dominant social structures and their form of science. In Britain, the radical science movement has mainly been associated with the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science, and in the United States with Science for the People. The radical science movement has been strongest in making a critique of the use of science within capitalist society: the orientation of scientific research for the purposes of profit and social control. For example, attention has been focussed on agricultural research which selectively helps large farmers and on the ideas of sociobiology which help justify sexual and social inequality.

In spite of all this activity, the radical science movement has given relatively little attention to science as a professionalised activity. The critique has mainly been of science as a tool of capitalism. The implicit assumption often seems to be that professionalised science would continue pretty much as at present in a socialist society, except that science would be oriented to socialist rather than capitalist ends. Clearly such a conception takes little account of the power structures within science as a professionalised activity.

There have been a few suggestive signs of how to move towards a deprofessionalised science. One avenue is the 'science shop' which has been pioneered in the Netherlands. Growing out of university-based radical science groups, science shops were set up to link together community groups and scientific experts. Community groups without easy access to scientific expertise, such as trade unions or environmental groups, can approach the science shop with particular problems. The shop workers then try to find scientists who are willing to work on the problems. The science shop thus helps to break down the barriers between scientific research and community needs.

Another promising model is given by citizen groups in Japan organised to study environmental problems. The groups are composed of teachers, citizens and some sympathetic scientists, and they undertake research on environmental problems in simple but penetrating ways, such as by studying radiation-sensitive plants and doing surveys of illnesses in local communities. The citizen research groups have actually been more successful in finding the origins of some environmental problems, such as Minamata disease caused by mercury poisoning, than highly trained, heavily funded professional teams of scientists. This is because the citizen research groups did not get side-tracked into specialised research abstracted from the real issues, and also because they were willing to interact directly with the pollution-affected communities.

By and large, there has been little thought and action towards deprofessionalising science. The Dutch science shops and the Japanese citizen research teams seem to be partial exceptions. One of the reasons for the lack of progress towards self-managing science lies in the difficulties which arise in radical science groups. To illustrate these I will discuss some experiences in a radical science group in Canberra in 1980-1982, Community Action on Science and Environment (CASE).

CASE was set up to focus on social issues involving science and technology, not to concentrate on the technical issues themselves. For example, in looking at the role of herbicides in agriculture and other uses, we did investigate the health and environmental consequences of herbicides, but with the aim of highlighting the way herbicides were developed and promoted to benefit particular groups (government departments and chemical companies) and the aim of suggesting some alternative approaches which had fewer harmful environmental effects and which also gave up less power to outside elites and experts. This was the aim; the practice was more difficult.

We worked on quite a few issues during the years of CASE's existence, mainly in the areas of environmental chemicals and diet. We treated, for example, issues associated with head lice treatments, sugar in diets, caffeine, fluoridation, dietary salt and herbicides. After deciding upon an issue to look into (either as a result of interest by group members or by outside request), our usual procedure was to investigate technical literature on the subject, and then prepare written material about the issue raising both health and environmental points and also political points and alternatives. Typically, the result would be a leaflet about the topic, which would be distributed at stalls and via contacts. On some issues we wrote letters to the newspaper or made press releases. There were several problems faced by CASE which limited its effectiveness.

My conclusion from this experience is not that CASE-type groups are a waste of time. Quite the contrary. There is a need for many more such groups. But another and perhaps more fruitful direction for scientist-activists is to become involved in other social action groups, such as labour, feminist, environmental or antiwar groups. To such groups scientific insiders can bring and share knowledge and skills in analysing information to cut through scientific smokescreens on social issues involving science and technology. Scientific insiders can gain from such groups an understanding of political analysis and action, and perhaps some of these insights can then be used to push towards self-management in science from both the inside and the outside.

Struggles against technologies

There have been numerous campaigns against particular technologies, including nuclear weapons, nuclear power, chemical plants, pesticides, supersonic transport aircraft, and genetic engineering. These campaigns have both strengths and limitations in terms of challenging the roots of war and other social problems.

On the one hand, technologies embody certain ways of organising society. The supersonic transport aircraft, for example, is highly expensive and uses large amounts of natural resources. Its benefits of rapid international transport would go mainly to the rich. Its costs, including sonic boom and effects on the upper atmosphere, would mainly affect nontravellers. The technical capability and skills to build this civilian transport aircraft are also just the ones needed for producing military aircraft. Finally, the state support and bureaucratic production methods required for this technology are useful for the war system. Therefore, the successful campaign against the supersonic transport was a contribution to struggles against the war system. The same can be said about many other struggles against particular technological systems.

On the other hand, struggles against particular technologies seldom challenge the basic way in which technological development occurs: decision-making grounded in the state, bureaucracy, patriarchy, etc. The supersonic transport was largely stopped by citizen action, but the aircraft industry proceeds on much the same as before. Similarly, struggles against individual weapons, such as cruise missiles or napalm, seldom challenge the basic process by which weapons are developed. This is a difficult task, to be sure.

Another way to proceed is to promote alternative technologies which are more compatible with different ways of organising society. Examples are decentralised solar power instead of nuclear power or fossil fuels, bicycles and human-oriented cities in place of the car and suburban sprawl, and local organic gardening in place of centralised agricultural monocultures.

Alternative technology or 'convivial technology' is best conceived as a tool for changing society. If treated as a technical alternative to be introduced without changing social arrangements, alternative technology becomes a substitute for changing society.

The alternative technology movement developed very strongly in the 1970s, especially in the wake of rises in the price of Middle East oil and in conjunction with the environmental movement. But since then much of its radical potential has been sapped, as corporations have introduced energy efficiency, bought up solar production facilities, and also made life difficult for activists looking for changes in society as well as technology.

There is no guarantee that 'soft energy,' namely energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies, will lead to a 'soft politics' of greater equality and participation. After all, energy efficiency can be implemented by authoritarian governments and solar heaters can be sold or leased by giant corporations. Soft energy technologies are generally better socially, since the technology for producing solar hot water cannot be used easily for making weapons, unlike nuclear power technology. But still, technologies by themselves do not bring about social change. Struggles for alternative technology need to be linked to struggles for an alternative society. Campaigns need to be oriented to the social arrangements by which technologies are created and introduced, not just to the physical objects that result.