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I am at an international conference (ICIAM2019) about numerical methods and am surprised by the prevalence of applications directly relatable to arms research.

examples:

  • One award winner holds his talk about the mathematical problem of radar reconstruction/detection of moving objects, within his talk he describes the situation of a radar "platform" in 8km height using active radar detecting "moving subjects" at ground level, and he goes on about how magnificently tricky this problem is.

  • people are presenting methods to accurately resolve and simulate shockwaves, and a quick google search reveals that they are working on "inertial confinement fusion".

  • at after-conference dinner I sat next to people doing numerics in Los Alamos.

I am doing my phd in applied math and numerical methods, and to be honest, I did not anticipate that the people receiving awards and are put on the large stages are doing arms research. I also noticed that the audience, which is presumably smarter than me, is applauding this work.

I am wondering whether or not I would want to be part of this community, and if it is possible to build a career in applied math without directly or indirectly contributing to arms research. Is this something that is shrugged of? I am at a very early stage and would be very grateful for advice from the more experienced folks.

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    $\begingroup$ I appreciate this question, and look forward to hearing others' perspectives. You have every right to make your own life decisions based on your personal ethos; however, words like "spooked" and phrases like "without further questions" are polarizing. There are a lot of people who know exactly what technology they're contributing to, and also believe in the morality of it, for better or worse. I think it would be helpful to make some of your language more neutral. $\endgroup$ – LedHead Jul 18 at 16:30
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    $\begingroup$ I softened the question a bit to make it less suggestive. thanks for the remark. $\endgroup$ – MPIchael Jul 18 at 19:51
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    $\begingroup$ I recommend reading Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s book Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military. $\endgroup$ – Paul Jul 19 at 0:04
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    $\begingroup$ Are any of your examples actually "arms research"? There are plenty of civilian applications for radar. Fusion has many beneficial applications for power generation. Los Alamos may have its roots in nuclear weapons, but these days it does plenty of research that is not directly applicable to warfare. It sounds like you've spooked yourself over nothing to me. $\endgroup$ – Harabeck Jul 19 at 15:57
  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Anton Menshov Jul 20 at 15:45
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I completely agree with @Anton in his discussion. No matter what scientific computing work you do, if you publish it in some public journal or location, it can be used to build weapons or further military tech.

I worked on missiles for a few years in a classified lab and I can tell you that I used my scientific computing background constantly in that environment. Using what I knew about solving differential equations or doing optimization and distributed computing were only a subset of the things I benefited from in that line of work and that doesn’t include other areas such as AI, computer science, controls, dynamical systems, etc. I can also tell you it was the norm in our lab to find papers and/or blog posts in these topics, when needed, to try and advance different algorithms for our purposes.

So indirectly, anything you make public and available could be used. So you’ll never escape that. That said, I think it’s totally reasonable to never need to directly support arms research with your work. Some of my current colleagues have had big careers in scientific computing and they haven’t supported any arms research directly.

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    $\begingroup$ I am genuinely curious. Do you rationalize this line of work with the argument "better we have that technology than the other faction"? I have read some of Feynmans books and he describes that that was the dominant argument at Los Alamos at the time. $\endgroup$ – MPIchael Jul 18 at 20:32
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    $\begingroup$ The best weapon is one that never needs to be used, simply because it's so good nobody in their right mind would want to face an opponent that has that weapon in their arsenal. And as to offensive vs. defensive, there's little difference. Many things (maybe most), can be considered either depending on scenario. An air-air missile for example. If carried on an interceptor defending a city the missile is in a defensive role, if carried on a penetration strike mission by an attack aircraft it's offensive. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Jul 19 at 11:11
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    $\begingroup$ @spektr but not cynic enough to believe in the inevitability of actors who achieve this level of defensive might eventually using the same power for acts of aggression, I guess! $\endgroup$ – Will Jul 19 at 14:19
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    $\begingroup$ @Will I am cynical enough to think such a thing could happen. But if at least two players are competing in what would be an arms race, I expect (with no guarantee) the aggression will largely be kept at bay. If a single actor greatly exceeded the power of all others, I would be worried then. $\endgroup$ – spektr Jul 19 at 14:35
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    $\begingroup$ @spektr Since the world is not quite yet completely divided into the territory of a handful of militarily-matched superpowers this equilibrium isn't a very recognisable pattern in reality. Nevertheless, lacking the military might to resist the expansionist projects and proxy wars of the remaining superpowers is certainly easier to get worried about than remaining in or joining their rank. $\endgroup$ – Will Jul 19 at 15:32
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TL;DR:

  • It is certainly possible to build a career in applied math and computational sciences without directly contributing to arms research.
  • It is hardly possible to build a career in any research without indirectly contributing to arms research.

One can easily avoid direct contributions to military topics by choosing more abstract mathematical topics, carefully selecting numerical/measurement experiments, applying (actually, not applying) for the particular grants, etc. In this way, a researcher can build a very successful career without direct arms contributions.

Now, due to the nature of computational sciences, this research can be of extreme interest for advancing military technology. Developing an abstract applied mathematical method might contribute (without you realizing it) to a certain military application.

It is certainly true that the research from STEM fields is especially prone to potential military usage. However, that is not limited to STEM. Arts, humanities, and all other research can (and did!) potentially contribute to the advances of arms, directly or indirectly.

The simplest example of indirect contibution that is totally outside of your control:

As a professor, you developed an extremely popular course in numerical methods/philosophy of science/history of art. One of your students successfully finished it and decided to apply to arms research. Now you indirectly contributed to this research by providing your passion, materials, and time.

It is easy and possible to find examples of more "direct" indirect contributions. Say, the study of the art of Kukryniksy can lead to more efficient propaganda methodologies.

I, personally, very appreciate the ethical concerns. And the question of research ethics has become quite a hot topic in recent years. I would not discuss if it is ethical to do research that directly contributes to and targets military applications. It is a choice of the particular researcher that we should, at least, respect. But I will point out that potential indirect contributions to military applications are inevitable for any research field. Moreover, the safest way to not contribute to arms is to do nothing, which is obviously a bad solution altogether.

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I'm going to be slightly pedantic, but it is in the interest of easing your mind. The problem is here, emphasis mine.

career in applied math without directly or indirectly contributing to arms research.

The way you've framed the question, the only possible answer is "no". But you could say the same for any career choice.

  • "Can I pursue a career as a pastry chef without indirectly contributing to arms research?"
  • "Can I pursue a career in vending machine repair without indirectly contributing to arms research?"
  • "Can I pursue a career in fishing without indirectly contributing to arms research?"

The only answer to all of these is obviously "no", as indirect support could simply mean making the lives of arms researchers easier or providing them with calories to do their work. The world is massively interconnected, and you are largely not responsible for indirect, unintended contributions.

If you develop an interesting approach to any problem within computational science, people can then use your insights to forward many goals. Frankly, even an offhanded comment to a colleague could give them an insight that gels an idea that contributes to something else they're working on.

Worry about your direct contributions. The rest is truly out of your control.

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    $\begingroup$ This is the answer. If you pay tax you are contributing to the defence budget. If your land was invaded you would expect the military to protect you, or not? So it's a bit non sequitur to be against everything military and still expect them to be there when needed. And they are needed; it's only the knowledge that they are there which stops bad guys from moving in. I see you are in Germany. Look East and tell us what's stopping the big bully neighbour from coming over (again). $\endgroup$ – RedSonja Jul 19 at 11:06
  • $\begingroup$ @RedSonja while I approve Ben I.'s answer, your argument is very viewpoint-specific. The same logic as you apply to German scientists, also applies to the scientists living in the big bully country, and they might apply the same rationale to justify working for the army... or should they? $\endgroup$ – svavil Jul 19 at 11:29
  • $\begingroup$ It always brings me back to Kant's imperative. If everybody would argue like this, we will be in a constants arms-race. If every scientist would desist from arms research, we would be in a better place. These are of course unrealistic extremes, and I know that the world is more complex than that, but it is the only consistent argument I can think of. $\endgroup$ – MPIchael Jul 19 at 12:49
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    $\begingroup$ This is part of the human condition, sad but true. Come up with an answer and pick up your Nobel prize. $\endgroup$ – RedSonja Jul 19 at 13:03
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    $\begingroup$ My viewpoint is very much influenced by living in Europe, in a country which in living memory was indeed unhappily occupied by the big bad bully in the East. I lock my door when I go out. Do you not? $\endgroup$ – RedSonja Jul 19 at 13:05
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Not all defense work is about offensive weapons; a lot is also about security: meaning preventing damage, preventing loss of life, and generally preserving and/or improving quality of life. For example, it is of national interest to diversify sources of energy not only to prevent global warming, but also in case of loss of infrastructure. People research computational epidemiology and informatics to prevent diseases from spreading or curing them as well. Advances in science and technology through the insights gained from computational research are also valuable to security in more ways than offensive weaponry.

While any advances in science can be weaponized for offensive purposes, the same research can also be “counter-weaponized” to save lives and improve quality of life.

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    $\begingroup$ “Not all...about offensive weapons... ...security...preventing damage...” – I don't say this can't be an invalid argument, however there's a massive slippery slope here. Just about everything militaries have ever done in history was claimed to serve some kind of defensive purpose; in some cases what they ended up doing was actually genocide of the “offending” party. $\endgroup$ – leftaroundabout Jul 19 at 10:11
  • $\begingroup$ @leftaroundabout: Defense is multifaceted. All that is made for benevolent purposes can be exploited for malicious intent. Much of what is made for malicious intent can also be manipulated for benevolent purposes as well. It is good to be concious of potential ill consequences of research. But if there is even a remote possibility to exploit it for good as well, I feel it is worth risking. $\endgroup$ – Paul Jul 19 at 23:10
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I largely agree with the answers above. A field that could be of great interest to computational scientists and that is only indirectly linked to the military is geophysical fluid dynamics. One could work on developing state-of-the-art weather, climate and ocean models. Your work can result in better weather predictions and a better understanding of the climate system and the human influence on this climate system.

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  • $\begingroup$ Weather forecasting has direct military applications. The USAF even has a Special Forces branch dedicated to it. $\endgroup$ – Gaius Jul 21 at 13:53

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