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UK universities funded £190 million from major arms manufacturers since 2013

UK universities have received at least £190 million in research funding from arms producing and military services companies since 2013, Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) can reveal. 

At the end of 2020, AOAV sent Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to 76 UK universities asking for the total amount of funding they had received since 2013 from 11 major arms manufacturers. 

When responses were provided, the total funding over the eight-year period totalled £189,970,044, raising questions about the nature of weaponised research in British tertiary education.

The companies in question were: BAE, Babcock, QinetiQ, Rolls-Royce, Serco, Cobham, Raytheon, Airbus, General Dynamics, Leonardo MW and Lockheed Martin. Not all these firms exclusively produce weaponry, but all appeared in the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s (SIPRI) 2018 list of the 100 top arms-producing and military services companies in the world (excluding China).

The top five universities receiving arms funding were Sheffield, King’s College London, Cambridge, Oxford and Imperial College.

Of the 76 Universities contacted, 17 refused to give information on funding, including major centres of learning such as Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Nottingham and Southampton. These institutions cited a range of reasons preventing them from providing details such as the information was commercially sensitive, prohibited by the Official Secrets Act or that it would have been too costly to obtain. 

Dundee, Greenwich and Sussex, while unable to provide totals or specific details on funding, admitted to receiving funding from the arms companies mentioned. It is likely, therefore, that the figure of £190 million significantly underestimates the amount of money that has been funnelled into UK universities from weapons producers in recent years. 

Only 11 of the universities contacted replied to FOI requests confirming that they had not received any funding from arms firms since 2013. These included Cardiff Met, Northumbria, St Andrews, Sunderland and the University of West London. 

Of the institutions that revealed details about their funding, Sheffield University topped the list, receiving close to £47 million over eight years – with 72% of the total coming from Rolls-Royce alone. The University did not provide any specific details on any of the projects that had been funded. 

King’s College London (KCL), was the next largest recipient of funding. This was mainly due to £39 million awarded by Serco Ltd to provide “academic service”’ to the Joint Services Command and Staff College (JSCSC) in Shrivenham – a British military academy which “trains the future commanders and staff officers of all three UK armed services and those from many countries around the world.”

The University of Cambridge received funds totalling close to £20 million over the time period, with Rolls-Royce once again providing the lion’s share. 

Oxford University only provided information on funding received from three companies: Airbus, Lockheed Martin and Rolls-Royce. The university would not provide exact figures for funding, instead providing brackets. Using midpoints of the funding brackets provided, BITE estimated the University received funds in the region of £19,400,200 from the three arms manufacturers mentioned. It was not clear why information was withheld for other firms.

Elsewhere, Imperial College London admitted to accepting more than £15 million in funding, while the University of Strathclyde and Manchester University took up £11,376,277 and £9,794,746 respectively. Eight other universities – Bangor, Chichester, Edinburgh, Lancaster, Portsmouth, Sheffield Hallam, Swansea and York – received more than £1 million since 2013.

The funders

Rolls-Royce was by far the biggest funder of university projects, giving more than £107 million to 22 different UK institutions, and accounting for 56% of all funding recorded by BITE. 

Some of this research might have been based on wider engineering projects. However, Rolls-Royce’s position as one of the world’s biggest producers of arms in terms of total sales means it is possible that any research might assist its weapons development.

Serco Ltd. was the next biggest funder, providing over £39 million. The majority of this figure was given to KCL in relation to JSCSC. 

BAE systems, the British arms and aerospace company, was the third largest funder, giving close to £24 million to 32 different UK education institutions. 

Other arms companies, such as General Dynamics (GD), did not fund as much research, with GD providing a total of only £4,650 over eight years. This included £650 to Canterbury Christ Church as sponsorship of “the Big Bang South East STEM Fair” in April 2020. 

What is being funded?

Some of the funding provided will not have direct military relevance. Cobham, for example, provided £6,780 to the University of York for “English and Related Literature”, while Lockheed Martin gave funds in excess of £100,000 to Swansea University for projects investigating “environmental clean-up of waste chemicals from ground water”.

The majority of the firms mentioned also have a range of commercial activities outside arms manufacturing – typically in aerospace engineering. Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) states that arms comprise only 26% of Rolls-Royce’s total sales, despite it being the world’s 20th largest arms company in 2018 (excluding China). Therefore, it is possible that much of the more than £100 million in funds given by Rolls-Royce to UK institutions may be for outwardly commercial projects. 

However, the boundaries between commercial and military technologies in large engineering companies are typically blurred. It is very possible that university research projects related to commercial aviation, for example, could also be deployed in the manufacture of bombers and fighter jets. According to Andrew Smith of CAAT, at universities “the technology being developed with arms industry money could be used in wars and conflicts in the future”.

The lack of openness from UK universities with regards to total funding and the nature of projects being funded, also raises concerns as to the true extent of their collaboration with major arms companies. 

In addition, many of the university projects had clear military implications. More than £500,000 given to Edinburgh University by QinetiQ pertained to the study of ballistics and explosives. One project named “Manufacture and Evaluation of DBX-1” refers to a primary explosive designed to replace lead azide in detonators. 

Leonardo MW also provided £21,000 to the University of Essex for “development of a hardware demonstration platform able to monitor and detect human behaviour in a residential environment”.

Academic Complicity?

The huge quantities of funding pouring into UK universities from major arms manufacturers highlights how leading British academics, researchers and institutions may be – inadvertently or otherwise – creating and developing technologies which wage war and bring about human rights abuses the world over. 

A 2019 report by Amnesty International stated that of the 22 arms manufacturers they contacted – including BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce – not one could demonstrate how they met their human rights responsibilities.  

Last year, it was also revealed that BAE Systems had sold over £15 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since the beginning of their assault on Yemen. The company’s chairman, Roger Carr, admitted in 2018 that the company “does not know” if its weapons are used in war crimes, demonstrating a worrying lack of accountability and little regard for moral perspectives. 

A spokesperson for Rolls Royce said:

“The university work we sponsor is focused on fundamental science, which is reflected in the fact that the vast majority ends up in peer-reviewed publications. It supports the improved efficiency of our products, which is vital to help us reach our ambitious target to hit net zero carbon by 2050. In terms of what our products are: we are not an “arms manufacturing company”, we make engines and power/propulsion systems for a wide range of vehicles: from commercial airliners, helicopters and business jets to agricultural vehicles, ferries, yachts and trains, as well as for power generation. Our Defence business – which is one of our three business units – sells these engines and propulsion systems for use in military vehicles. However, it is our Civil Aerospace business, which provides jet engines for commercial aviation, that is by far the largest ‘sponsor’ of university research.”