Cooperation among the military, government agencies, and elite academic institutions is nothing new. In the United States, several elite schools work with the Department of Defense (DoD) and other agencies to improve America’s power. Johns Hopkins University, for example, is leading the way in drone technology. But seldom can one see how the process begins and what the goals are for these programs—until now.
According to leaked documents provided to Varsity, the Cambridge University student newspaper, the British military has reached out to the United Kingdom’s top universities for assistance in improving its psychological warfare capabilities. More specifically, the Ministry of Defense (MoD) established the Human Social Science Research Capability (HSSRC) program in order to develop ways to influence human behavior in combat and non-combat situations. In exchange for their cooperation, the MoD promised millions in educational funds.
According to one of the leaked documents, “Cambridge researchers and collaborators would bring world-leading research in AHSS to support the armed services in diverse areas such as rapid decision-making in complex situations and in improving the wellbeing of service personnel with regard to recruitment, training and retention, family life, and gender.”
Some of the universities that answered the call were Lancaster University, Cambridge University, and Oxford University. The MoD didn’t limit its request only to universities; it also reached out to top defense companies such as BAE Systems and QinetiQ.
The MoD was looking to “the testing, refinement, and validation of workable concepts, tools, techniques, and methods to enable analysis of audiences to inform the planning of appropriate activities, synchronised delivery of these activities, [and] measurement of their effectiveness.”
But there was significant backlash from part of the academic community. In response to the MoD’s request, 40 British academics inked an open letter stating their objections to the initiative. “We do not believe that the role of a public university is to involve staff in armed conflicts by acting as a supplier of contract research to the MoD,” they wrote.
Simon Schaffer, a professor of the history and philosophy of science at Cambridge, said, “Now I don’t want to be too academic about this, but it’s very striking that a program designed to change people’s views and opinions for military purposes would spend some of its money changing people’s views and opinions, so that they wouldn’t object to changing people’s views and opinions. See what they did there? Propaganda squared, and that seems wrong.”
One of the objectives of the program was the Information Activities & Outreach (IA&O) initiative, which was defined as the “targeted manipulation of information in the virtual and physical domains to shape attitudes and beliefs in the cognitive domain.”
Cambridge University has since withdrawn from the program.