Photo: Denny J/Composite: Noella Chye

Two years ago, the Ministry of Defence announced it was looking to set up a psychological research centre tasked with building a better military. The programme would involve research into influencing human behaviour, and promised millions of pounds in funding. Cambridge decided to apply.

The programme, called the Human Social Science Research Capability (HSSRC) programme, involved the “targeted manipulation of information in the virtual and physical domains to shape attitudes and beliefs in the cognitive domain,” according to a Ministry of Defence (MoD) presentation in 2017.

If selected, Cambridge estimated it would receive £69 million in research funding over four years.

At a meeting in June 2018, Cambridge’s General Board noted they were one of the four final candidates being considered to house the programme, and voted to apply for it, alongside a university committee which reports to Council and “scrutinises sources of significant funding from an ethical and reputational perspective”. The centre would have been set up within the School of Arts and Humanities.

DOCUMENTS SEEN BY VARSITY

Cambridge researchers and collaborators would bring world leading research in AHSS [Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences] 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. ❞


At some point along the bidding process, the University told Varsity, it dropped out. It did not respond to multiple requests for comment on when and why.

Documents leaked to Varsity reveal that if they had been chosen, Cambridge would have collaborated with Frazer-Nash Consultancy, a consultancy firm which supports members of the weapons industry in the design and manufacturing of small arms, naval guns, complex weapons, and artillery systems.

Officials noted the “potential reputational risks” of working with the Ministry of Defence, and detailed a “targeted communications effort” to mitigate them.


READ: The proposal in full

The proposal was discussed and approve during a General Board meeting in June last year.


In light of the revelations, the national Campaign Against Arms Trade condemned the proposal, and said that the University management has “serious questions to answer”.

An MoD centre to understand human behaviour

The programme claims a focus in six research areas: personnel, training and education, humans in systems, human performance, and, notably, understanding and influencing human behaviour.

One of the HSSRC’s six research areas — understanding and influencing behaviour — would follow a ‘full spectrum approach’, according to a Ministry of Defence presentation. The presentation described it as a “co-ordinated use of the full spectrum of national capabilities to achieve geopolitical and strategic aims, including military, non-military, overt and covert means, within the rule of law.”

A University spokesperson said: “We did not take the application further.” They declined to multiple requests for comment on when and why they dropped out of the process. A spokesperson for the UK Ministry of Defence confirmed the selection process is ongoing.

In 2014, The Guardian revealed the Ministry of Defence’s “secret, multimillion-pound research programme into the future of cyberwarfare, including how emerging technologies such as social media and psychological techniques can be harnessed by the military to influence people’s beliefs”, which included the full spectrum approach.

Collaborating with Frazer-Nash

In June 2018, three members of the University’s research office put forth a proposal for Cambridge to enter the bid in collaboration with Frazer-Nash Consultancy, which would “provide the primary interface with industry and cover work that requires high levels of security clearance,” according to documents seen by Varsity.

DOCUMENTS SEEN BY VARSITY

❝The programme will administer projects up to security level of ‘secret’. Project classified as ‘secret’ will be handled through Frazer Nash which has the highest levels of security clearance.❞


Specifically, documents noted, the programme would have administered projects up to the Ministry of Defence’s security clearance level of ‘secret’, which grants access to ‘very sensitive information’, such as where compromise could seriously damage military capabilities, international relations or the investigation of serious organised crime.

Pro-vice-chancellor for Enterprise and Business Relations, Professor Andrew Neely, also present at the meeting, said that Frazer-Nash was “well-respected” in the defence industry and had been successful with the development of other national research centres.

Professor Neely did not respond to a request for comment. A University spokesperson commented on his behalf: “The minutes of the General Board speak for themselves. Working with business is part of the role for the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Enterprise and Business Relations. Professor Neely talks to and about outside organisations on behalf of the University all the time about potential collaborations.”

‘Potential reputational risks’

In a statement on today’s findings, a spokesperson for the national Campaign Against Arms Trade, said: “The University management has serious questions to answer about how this proposal came to be, and what other programmes it has applied for.

“Universities are for education, they should never be treated as outposts for the MoD or research departments for the arms industry.”

DOCUMENTS SEEN BY VARSITY

The potential reputational risks of this will be mitigated by a targeted communications effort, fully funded through the programme, to highlight the positive impact of the University’s involvement in the programme.❞


The proposal was brought to the General Board for consideration because it was seen as having the potential to raise concerns due to the link to the Ministry of Defence.

It contained plans for a “targeted communications effort” to mitigate the potential reputational risks of the programme, which would emphasise “the positive impact of the University’s involvement in the programme”.

The proposal was also approved by the Committee on Benefactions, External and Legal Affairs (CBELA), which scrutinises funding for ethical and reputational risks.

Student activist groups Cambridge Defend Education and Demilitarise Cambridge commented: “It is no surprise that Cambridge sought to keep its potential involvement in [the programme] secret, nor that it was so worried about potential damage to its reputation.”

They also “encourage[d] University authorities to clarify the nature of their involvement with this tender process and explain the extent of their pre-existing links with both the MoD and Frazer Nash.”

How Cambridge would have implemented the programme

If selected, documents showed the programme in Cambridge would have been set up in a new centre for research, called the Centre for Strategic Futures, with the possibility of transforming the centre in the long term to a “profit generating programme management consultancy.”

The General Board of the Faculties consists of the vice-chancellor as chair, heads and deputy heads of the University’s six schools, four members appointed by the University’s primary decision-making body — University Council — and two student representatives.

The Heads of the School of Arts & Humanities, and School of Humanities and Social Sciences, were noted to be supportive during the General Board meeting.

In discussions, the Head of the School of Clinical Medicine, Professor Patrick Henry Maxwell, voiced support for the proposal. He claimed that the research – which the MoD said was designed to deliver a “skilled and capable workforce equipped ... to meet Defence requirements” – could contribute to supporting students’ mental health.


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The HSSRC programme is estimated to provide Cambridge researchers with £20m for research projects. The University would also receive £6.9m in funding to administer and develop the HSSRC programme. Cambridge also estimated that as prime contractor, it would be in a better position to compete for research funding worth £42m. It would total £69m paid over four years, with the possibility of an additional three years, subject to review.

The programme would be managed initially by Professor Steven Connor, director of the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), and supported by six academics.

Prime contractors for the programme would be responsible for delivering human, social and behavioural sciences research, and “building and maintaining a robust supplier network.”

One academic spoke to Varsity about the proposals on the condition of anonymity. They said: “The University should not be involved in secretive military [...] programmes, especially not without proper democratic consultation of staff and students.

“Contracts of this sort restrict academic freedom by imposing projects and ideological parameters, and most often include confidentiality clauses on the results.”