If you ask me

Chris Langley from Scientists for Global Responsibility and Nick Smith, management editor, offer their views on current issues.

If you ask me

The best form of defence?

Universities play an essential role in modern society. They're vital centres of teaching and research, and sources of independent and objective information and analysis. However, in the last 20 years, military sector involvement has grown, especially in the USA and the UK.

Two factors significantly contribute to this trend. First, the marked dependence on high-technology, weapons-based approaches for dealing with complex security threats, not least as part of the so-called 'War on Terror'. The second is the growing commercialisation of universities, which encourages them to work more closely with large corporations. Both factors can compromise the gold standards of academic independent thinking.

The scale of the research and development underpinning modern industrialised warfare is significant. US government spending on military R&D soared to $78bn in 2007, a 57 per cent increase since 2001. In the UK – the third largest military R&D spender – annual spending by the Ministry of Defence is around $5bn. A number of new initiatives announced in the 2006 UK Defence Technology Strategy seek to further increase university involvement with military-directed research.

Internationally, increased military spending drives a narrowly-focused high-technology security stance, despite it being clear that there are major shortcomings in this focus – not least in dealing with the threat of international terrorism. 

We should be concerned that universities are being drawn into supporting this narrow version of defence, helping to marginalise a broader, more nuanced way of framing how to tackle security threats. Greater funding of R&D to provide effective and innovative ways of addressing poverty, climate change, resource depletion, energy needs and support basic security for populations everywhere, would go to the root causes of conflict. This form of positive security is grossly underfunded in comparison to spending on military objectives. The latest data show that in 2006, governments in wealthier nations spent a total of $96bn on military R&D, but only $56bn on health and environmental R&D, and $1.1bn on renewable energy research.

Universities, with their wealth of expertise and links with the business community, have a key role to play in facilitating new ways of looking at the full spectrum of threats that we and the environment face. In order to be effective, university researchers should be independent and able to exchange ideas with colleagues across disciplines, without feeling dominated by commercial end-points and practices.

Given that the global military burden now exceeds $1.2tr, we must urgently shift a large fraction of science and technology funding away from narrow military goals toward areas that are directly supportive of conflict prevention, social justice and environmental protection – with active involvement of our universities. The ties that universities have with military corporations and government departments must be reduced in order to facilitate change and innovative, effective ways of providing peace and security.

Chris Langley is principal researcher for Scientists for Global Responsibility and author of 'Soldiers in the Laboratory: An Ethical Careers Briefing', 'Scientists or Soldiers? Career Choice, Ethics and the Military', and most recently 'More Soldiers in the Laboratory'.

'The Apprentice' – a plea for sanity

In the course of researching 'When Fear is the Motivator' for this issue of E&T (page 78) I referred to two primary sources. One was a book written 60 years ago by an English man of letters. I'm referring of course to George Orwell's 'Nineteen Eighty-Four'. The other was a contemporary BBC television programme that is a reality/tournament style entertainment loosely modelled on what the progamme editors think are modern management techniques.

My article reached the inescapable conclusion that the book is an intelligent, probing piece of literary futurology, while the TV show is at best a derivative piece of voyeuristic twaddle. With its ritual sackings, relentless humiliation and blame culture, 'The Apprentice' is little more than a clone of the hugely successful 'Big Brother', which of course gets its name from 'Nineteen Eighty-Four'.

There is however one significant difference of vital importance to the engineering manager. While 'Big Brother' may be the best example of how boring and trivial TV can become, it is nonetheless harmless. 'The Apprentice' has the potential to wreck the careers of ordinary people, and while I have to be careful to point out that a causal link has not been established, the figures I quote in my article seem to indicate that since 'The Apprentice' has been broadcast the number of unfair dismissal tribunal figures being heard has increased.

In the course of going over the proofs I wondered if I'd been a bit too critical of the programme and its anchorman Alan Sugar. And so I decided to give the programme another try. I watched the episode where the contestants all go off to the of Marrakech in Morocco, where their task is to beat down the local stallholders at all costs to get the best bargains. If you want to know what the long-term effect of this management technique is I can do no better than to refer you to the state of British farming.

In my article I am careful to point out that 'The Apprentice' is only a TV show, and managers should in turn be careful not to confuse Sugar's on-screen personality with what is legally (or indeed morally) acceptable in the workplace. Having watched another show I am frankly baffled that he is allowed to make the sort of statements he made about Moroccan stall keepers. Make comments like that at work and you could be in hot water quite quickly.

The saddest part is that Sugar seems to have forgotten that management, whether an art or a science, is a privilege. Some might say that he dishes out no more than his mostly despicable contestants deserve, but the way he shouts, bullies and brags is enough to make Orwell's Inner Party officials look like a bunch of butlers. If you cast your mind back to Room 101 towards the end of 'Nineteen Eighty-Four', even while O'Brien is torturing Winston Smith, he's never rude to him.

Nick Smith, management editor

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