The Ministry of Defence building in LondonDavid Holt/Flickr

Cambridge academics have launched an open letter to Vice-chancellor Stephen Toope and the director of the University’s Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), Professor Steven Connor, detailing their concerns over Cambridge’s decision to apply to house a Ministry of Defence psychological research programme after it was revealed by Varsity in February.


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The letter has garnered 41 signatures at the time of writing.

The research 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 presentation in 2017.

Leaked documents showed Cambridge had entered the final stage of the bidding process to house the programme, becoming one of four final candidates, though a University spokesperson told Varsity it had dropped out at some point. They did not respond to multiple requests for comment on when and why.

“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,” academics wrote in the open letter.

The HSSRC programme, they said, was particularly concerning because its results and methods would not be available for scrutiny by other academics.

They expressed particular concern that according to the leaked proposal, the University, if it had been selected to house the programme, was exploring the possibility of transforming the research centre into a “profit generating programme management consultancy” in the long term.

Academics wrote: “Undertaking government-funded contract research of this nature is troubling enough, but looking to profit from it is shocking. What kind of paying clients did you imagine would have wanted to buy services such as these?”

In full The open letter to Vice-chancellor Stephen Toope and Professor Steve Connor

We are writing to express our dismay at the news that the University reached the final stage of bidding for the Human Social Science Research Capability (HSSRC) Programme funding by the Ministry of Defence through DSTL, which would have involved classified contract research across a wide number of domains, including “understanding and influencing human behaviour”, and “targeted information manipulation”.

Setting up a programme of this nature, involving work classified under the Official Secrets Act, would, we believe, pose serious risks to the reputation and credibility of our research, particularly in the wake of public debate over the methods of “information manipulation” carried out by a member of staff who was engaged by Cambridge Analytica on a commercial contract.

The University already hosts many major projects which are making an important contribution to research in the fields covered by the HSSRC, but in contrast to this programme, the results are published, the methods used are open to scrutiny by the academic community, and the benefits can be harnessed for the good of the wider public.

We are deeply concerned that the University chose to enter the bidding for a contract research programme on this scale for the Ministry of Defence. 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. Many members of the university oppose military interventions involving UK armed forces, such as those which have had devastating effects on Iraq and Afghanistan.

We note with particular concern that you were exploring the setting up of a “profit generating programme management consultancy”. Undertaking government-funded contract research of this nature is troubling enough, but looking to profit from it is shocking. What kind of paying clients did you imagine would have wanted to buy services such as these? The DSTL’s current list of suppliers in ‘Human Capability’ includes companies selling services and products to authoritarian regimes directly implicated in major human rights violations (including Roke Manor Research, part of the Chemring Group, and QinetiQ, whose clients include the Saudi Ministry of the Interior).

We are also appalled that, according to the minutes of General Board, “the potential reputational risks” associated with participation, were to have been “mitigated by a targeted communications effort, fully funded through the programme.” In other words, one of the first targets of “information manipulation” would have been the very people whose taxes pay for the research in the first place, including members of staff and students at the University not involved in the programme.

We call on the University and CRASSH not to seek future funding under this or similar schemes.

Academics who wish to sign the open letter may email cambridgemodletter@gmail.com

Signed by:

Professor Simon Schaffer (Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Darwin College)

Professor Nick Hopwood (Department of History and Philosophy of Science)

Professor John Naughton (Director, Press Fellowship Programme, Wolfson College)

Professor Simon Szreter (Professor of History and Public Policy, Faculty of History)

Professor Clément Mohout, (DPMMS, Centre for Mathematical Sciences)

Professor Manucha Lisboa (Faculty of MML, St. John’s College)

Professor Mary Laven (Faculty of History, Jesus College)

Professor John Arnold (Faculty of History, King’s College)

Professor Nicolette Zeeman (Faculty of English, King’s College)

Professor Peter Kornicki (Emeritus Professor, Dept of East Asian Studies)

Professor Vic Gatrell, (Life Fellow, Gonville & Caius College)

Dr Robert Macfarlane (Faculty of English, Emmanuel College)

Dr. Sujit Sivasundaram (Director, Centre of South Asian Studies)

Dr Ella McPherson (Department of Sociology)

Dr Jason Scott-Warren (Faculty of English)

Dr Anne Alexander (Cambridge Digital Humanities/CRASSH)

Dr Anna Alexandrova (Reader in Philosophy of Science, Department of History and Philosophy of Science and King’s College)

Dr Waseem Yaqoob (Lecturer, Faculty of History)

Dr Hank Gonzalez (University Lecturer, Faculty of History)

Dr Nicki Kindersley (Faculty of History, Pembroke College)

Dr Justin Pearce (Department of Politics and International Studies, King's College)

Dr Adam Branch (University Lecturer, Department of Politics and International Studies)

Dr John David Rhodes (Reader, MML)

Dr Thomas Jeffrey Miley (University Lecturer, Department of Sociology)

Dr Midori Harris (Department of Biochemistry)

Dr Michael Hrebeniak (Faculty of English, Wolfson College)

Dr Christophe Gagne (Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages, Churchill College)

Dr Ruth Watson (University Lecturer, Faculty of History)

Dr Lucy Delap (Faculty of History, Murray Edwards College)

Dr Christopher Burlinson (Faculty of English, Jesus College)

Dr Hero Chalmers (Faculty of English, Fitzwilliam College)

Dr. Tyler Denmead (Lecturer, Faculty of Education)

Dr Houshang Ardavan (Institute of Astronomy and Murray Edwards College)

Dr Ian Patterson (Life Fellow, Queens' College and Faculty of English)

Dr Hugues Azérad (Magdalene College)

Dr Anna Judson (Research Fellow, Gonville & Caius College)

Dr Laura McMahon (Lecturer, Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages)

Dr Susan Daruvala (FAMES, Trinity College)

Dr. Yael Navaro (Reader in Social Anthropology and Fellow of Newnham College)

Dr Mary Newbould (Wolfson College, Faculty of English)

Dr Priyamvada Gopal (University Reader in Anglophone and Related Literatures of Churchill College)

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They also claimed the programme would “pose serious risks to the reputation and credibility of our research”.

The risks, they wrote, were particularly serious in light of the public debate over the work of a Cambridge neuroscientist, Dr Aleksandr Kogan, in the Cambridge Analytica scandal in March last year, involving methods of “information manipulation”.


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Dr Kogan was placed at the centre of an international investigation by The New York Times, The Guardian/Observer and Channel 4, which alleges he played a prominent role in developing strategies to change voters’ behaviour while working for the controversial political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica, through his academic research.

Whistleblower Christopher Wylie alleged that Dr Kogan’s social media algorithms had facilitated efforts by the firm Cambridge Analytica to influence the outcome of the 2016 United States presidential election which saw the election of Donald Trump.

When Cambridge’s proposal to enter the bid was first revealed, the national Campaign Against Arms Trade said, in a statement: “The University management has serious questions to answer about how this proposal came to be, and what other programmes it has applied for.”

At an open meeting with senior-pro-vice-chancellor for education, Graham Virgo, on Wednesday, he was questioned about the bid.

In response, he said: “It is entirely appropriate for researchers to decide that’s the research they want to do.” With regards to “autonomy” for research, he said, “as long as it’s legal, [it’s] something I’ll always argue for.”

Academics called on the University not to seek future funding under the HSSRC programme or similar ones. A University spokesperson declined to comment on whether they could make any such commitment. 

In a statement on the open letter, a spokesperson for the University told Varsity: “Outside organisations talk to us all the time about collaboration, but we are not part of this tender process.”

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