Challenge for German Universities' Pacifism

Many institutions shun military research, but government wants their help in bolstering defenses.

September 14, 2018

At the end of last month, Germany launched a new "cyber agency" to foster the technologies needed to keep the country safe in the digital sphere.

Likened to the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (although with a fraction of the budget), the idea is that the body will work closely with universities and businesses, commissioning research in promising areas such as quantum computing encryption, for example. Overseen by the defense and interior ministries, once fully up and running, it should have an annual outlay of €40 million to €50 million ($46 million to $58 million).

But there's one problem.

In many countries, the military works hand in glove with universities -- the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's 75-acre Lincoln Lab, for example, works on everything from ballistic missile defense to laser weapons with a $1 billion annual budget.

Yet in Germany, many universities are sworn to avoid military research altogether.

About 60 have signed up to the "civil clause": a commitment not to do research for military purposes, according to Klaus Boehnke, a professor of social science methodology, psychology and methods at Jacobs University in Bremen, an expert on the clause and a self-described pacifist. Five of the country's 16 states have also embedded the civil clause into law.

The idea spread from Japan after World War II, Boehnke explained, as universities atoned for their role in helping aggressive militaries in the 1930s. "It is an expression of the sentiment: 'never again,'" he said. Some Danish institutions have also adopted it, he added.

The number of institutions adopting the civil clause has exploded in recent years: close to 50 signed up in the period 2011-15, according to Boehnke's research. This has been driven by a realization that funding from defense departments -- particularly in the U.S. -- for ostensibly civilian causes, actually has military applications.

In 2013, for example, there was an outcry when it emerged that German universities had taken more than $10 million from the U.S. Department of Defense since 2010. Even innocent-sounding projects can take on a military meaning; one study of desert locusts was ultimately intended to help the U.S. improve drone technology.

The upsurge in universities taking the civil clause has been driven by students' unions, not faculty, observers believe. Students have pushed through the clause as German foreign policy has changed and the army has begun once again to be deployed abroad in places such as Afghanistan and the Baltic states, said Carlo Masala, a professor of international politics at the Bundeswehr University Munich.

These clauses potentially cause problems for the country's new defense efforts. If there is a public fuss made by students' unions or other critics, universities' civil clauses could stop them working with bodies such as the new cyber agency, said Boehnke.

Masala agreed that the clauses could exclude certain university specialists from the agency's research. But much German research was conducted outside universities, he pointed out; organizations such as the applied-research Fraunhofer institutes would "take advantage of the situation and get the funding," he said.

Besides, the government had also invested heavily in alternatives. Last year, it founded an internet security center at Masala's university. "I like the civil clause because this means more money for my research," he joked. "My competitors are out."

Adding a further layer of complexity, the German military actually has its own, dedicated universities, founded in the 1970s: in addition to Masala's institution in Munich, there is the Helmut Schmidt University in Hamburg, founded to make an officer career more attractive by providing a broader qualification that can be used outside the military.

A spokesman for the Federal Ministry of Defense stressed that the civil clause was the "exclusive responsibility of every single university. We respect this clause totally." Whether it would prevent researchers cooperating with the new agency was a matter for universities, the ministry said.

Ultimately, civil clauses are just another part of the wider, fraught debate over whether Germany, still intensely nervous of anything that could appear militaristic, should have a more "normal" relationship with its armed forces.

Masala saw the civil clause as being "absurd" in some cases -- even research into treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder to help soldiers, for example, would be blocked, he argued, as "students' unions would oppose this." The clauses reflect a "strange relationship between part of society and the armed forces," he said.

But, for Boehnke, the civil clauses are actually much flimsier than they might seem. Without external pressure to enforce them by calling out researchers taking defense money, they exist only "on paper," he said.

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