The desert locust is small, bright yellow and a brilliant navigator. Whether in the darkest night or bright sunlight, the locust can find its way over thousands of kilometers, guided in part by the stars or the moon's light patterns. A model for future aviation navigation systems? Perhaps, thought scientists at the Philipps University of Marburg.
"This seemingly harmless research project was especially surprising," said journalist Benedikt Strunz. Along with a team of reporters (link in German) from the German public broadcaster Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR) and the daily newspaper "Süddeutsche Zeitung," Strunz has revealed that many German universities are conducting research on behalf of the US Department of Defense. This includes the scientists in Marburg, whose work was funded by the US Air Force to the tune of about $70,000 (52,000 euros). "When we asked about it, the university explained that it was just basic research," said Strunz.
On closer inspection, however, it was discovered that the researchers were trying to determine whether the visual characteristics of the desert locust could also be used for targeted drones and guided munitions. "That, very clearly, is weapons research," said Strunz.
Universities confirm cooperation
The research project in Marburg is not an isolated case. According to the findings of NDR and the "Süddeutsche Zeitung," in recent years a total of 22 German universities and research institutes have received funding from the US Department of Defense in the amount of around $10 million, money spent on defense and basic research.
Some examples: in 2012, the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich received more than $470,000 from the Department of Defense to improve military explosives. The Fraunhofer Institute researched bulletproof glass and warheads for the US Army. And researchers at Saarland University received more than $120,000 in January 2012 to explore the mathematical processing of language structures. When asked, each of the universities confirmed the payments.
Among the institutions funded by the US military are universities that have actually renounced military research in so-called civil clauses, which stipulate that universities will only conduct research for civilian purposes. These projects have turned the clauses into a "farce," criticized Nicole Gohlke, spokeswoman for higher education policy for the Left Party in the German lower house of parliament, the Bundestag.
But the universities involved don't see this as the case, with the University of Bremen pointing out that a US funded satellite research project fell under basic research and was compatible with their civil clause. Many of the projects fall under the category of what is termed dual-use research, projects which can be used for either civilian or military purposes.
Opposition calls for more transparency
Horst Hippler, president of the German Rectors' Conference, rejected any criticism of the US military funding. "There is no reason to exclude the defense department of one of Germany's close allies from acting as project holder," he said.
But Jürgen Altmann, a physicist and peace researcher at TU Dortmund University, is skeptical. "It's problematic when the science is devoted to war preparation, especially when it's for the US military. After all, the US is waging wars of aggression, and without authorization from the UN Security Council," he said. He added that the scientific community must always keep the possible consequences of their actions in mind.
"Most of these universities weren't really shouting about these joint projects from the rooftops," said the NDR's Strunz. To uncover the information on these partnerships, the journalists had to search in US databases.
"It's unbelievable that this wasn't public knowledge until now," said the Left's Gohlke. Her counterpart in the Green Party, Kai Gehring, urged the universities to provide more transparency about their third-party projects. "It's only with the disclosure of key contractual data that the necessary social discourse on the ethics of these research projects is possible," he said.
Incidentally, the German government has also awarded military contracts to a number of research facilities. The Federal Ministry of Defense recently announced that in the past three years, an average of about 10 million euros annually has been devoted to projects dealing with everything from defense technology to social science.
The ministry would not provide any further information out of concerns for "military and civil security." Here, too, Strunz has called for more transparency.