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I recently enrolled in a Master's program in electrical engineering at a public research university in the midwestern United States. I am currently focusing on power distribution and transmission, as it seems like there are only a small number of well-defined channels between such things and militarism (compared to, say, controls engineering).

Unexpectedly, I was approached about a PhD opportunity by a mechanical engineering professor, and will be discussing the matter with him further.

However, I am not really sure how to make known the sorts of projects and actors I will not work with. It is only fair to him that I be upfront about these things, but for a variety of reasons I am not really sure how to articulate my boundaries (a pre-condition for even considering his offer).

In my mind, it would be quite reasonable to tell someone "I would not like to be involved in any project directly benefiting Defense, Aerospace, Surveillance, Autonomous Vehicles; those kinds of things" (adding "that stuff makes me uncomfortable", if necessary; I have no desire to discuss the matter or proselytize). This is somewhat euphemistic in that I try to avoid explicit "-isms", but paints a pretty clear picture of behavior I will not support, when presented together.

That being said:

  • It's a pretty plainly political declaration, even if I try to be somewhat euphemistic and non-confrontational about it. Such things have a chance of offending the other party, but I don't think there's a real way to mitigate this.

  • I am worried about even mentioning these things, particularly over email, with foreign-born professors--especially Middle Eastern or Chinese professors (see, for example, this NYT article on the "hunt"(!) for Chinese spies from Nov 2021. And it is not exactly a secret that various sectors of the US state keep close tabs on Middle Eastern groups/individuals).

This latter point is of particular importance. There are a significant number of Middle Eastern and Chinese professors in the department. There's also plainly a well-exercised apparatus for surveilling and harassing ambiguously-defined "national enemies". So this is an essential consideration, since there are certainly people who will find my position to be radical. Consequently, it would be quite irresponsible for me to say such things if there is even a nonzero chance they would cause anyone else to receive undue attention.


My concern applies more broadly than this particular PhD offer; there are a small number of other situations in which this information about myself is relevant: looking for research to contribute to, or trying to learn about employment prospects. It would also be untrue to say that I am only interested in electrical power, because I would be happy to contribute to any number of productive projects.

It's conceivable that the conditions in the US simply aren't right at the moment for such things to be mentioned in these settings, and that my best course of action may just be to keep my nose down and focus solely on the electrical power industry. But after being approached specifically for my math background as a potentially-ideal PhD candidate for this professor's needs, I am tempted to see whether my horizon can be at all broadened.

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    I don't quite understand why you perceive this to a potential issue (but I'm not in Engineering nor in the US). To me your stance seems like a perfectly normal preference, on par with being vegitarian. Yes, rarely someone might take offense, but those people don't merit consideration.
    – Arno
    Feb 9 at 18:42
  • It's ok to distance yourself from sensitive projects. However, if the USA government wants to come after you, they will even when you are not doing anything illegal. For example, you may be running an application or emailed a 'friend' in a non-friendly country. That may be sufficient to place in you a jam for some time. Further, I'm sure with some creativity, any STEM research can serve some purpose in the military. Hence, they can accuse you of carrying out research for the military.
    – VitaminE
    Feb 9 at 19:48
  • Probably a duplicate: How do I refuse to work on military-focused contracts?
    – cag51
    Feb 9 at 21:30
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    @JochenGlueck Think drones rather than automobiles
    – mkennedy
    Feb 10 at 2:03
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    Sorry, that really wasn't my question; I'd rather not open the debate about whether your beliefs are reasonable. Rather, I'm just trying to clarify your sixth paragraph: why do you believe having this conversation with an American-born professor requires different considerations than a Chinese-born professor?
    – cag51
    Feb 10 at 15:57

6 Answers 6

14

If you don't want to do military-related research, just say "I don't want to do military-related research." The basic reason will be obvious to anyone, and there are probably plenty of academics who feel the same way.

If you think that even saying that phrase to a foreign-born professor will cause them some problem, I think you are probably worrying too much.

"I would not like to be involved in any project directly benefiting Defense, Aerospace, Surveillance, Autonomous Vehicles; those kinds of things"

This is too long and confusing. Aerospace and autonomous vehicles research can be completely non-military.

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  • I think this misses the rasism/xenophobia aspect of the question. Feb 9 at 20:02
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    @Anonymous Physicist For that aspect of the question, the only part I could understand was "I am worried about even mentioning these things, particularly over email, with foreign-born professors," and I commented on that
    – gib
    Feb 9 at 20:08
3

If you have the freedom to choose the mode of conversation, let it be verbal. This would reduce the chances of your statements being misrepresented/used against you, especially at a later stage.

It would also be nice to seek permission to express your (non) preference of topic before you actually state it. Doing so is both safe and courteous; you've allowed the professor the opportunity to deny it. If it's permitted, I would suggest being direct about the militarism aspect rather than couching it within sub-fields (the ones you mentioned are non-exclusive, and there could be non-military work within them).

There is a finite chance that your preference would be considered naive; if probed, you should have a reasonably sound argument. I would suggest thinking along the lines of (a) whether non-military work that could be misused to be exploitative is more acceptable than any military work, and, (b) if you do obtain ground breaking results and realise their potential military use, how willing would you be to give up on them?

3

Your stance is not particularly radical. Academics often have preferences for the types of work they want to do, and in some cases this also consists of an aversion to particular types of projects. It is perfectly fine for you to tell people that you don't want to work on military projects (or other related projects). It is unlikely that you would need to explain your stance, but even if you did, it ought to be simple to set out your aversion to those projects without being seen as a political "radical".

As to your concern that your stance could lead to surveillance, etc., using mechanisms designed for dealing with spies, I would think it would be the opposite --- an actual spy would want to be put on as many secret military projects as possible. There is nothing suspicious or unusual about an academic deciding that military projects are not the type of thing they want to work on.

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While it would limit your choice of advisors, it is good that you express these things at the start. You will find a lot of support for your position in academia generally, though some will certainly disagree with you. If you express an opinion and get pushback, just keep looking for a different advisor or one who will, at least, still support you in spite of differences.

And there is no reason that people should extrapolate from what you say about the nature of a project to an interpretation that you disapprove of any individual professor, especially for racial or ethnic reasons. If they do, it is on them, and is unreasonable. You can't prevent people from being offended, but that is due to their own prejudices, not yours.

I once had a friend (lost track of him) who was involved with national defense projects in the US. He had similar concerns as yourself. But his position in such projects was to be a member of the Red Team, whose function was to show the flaws in the proposals put forth by the true believers. Over a number of years he was proven right in that the proposals he attacked (as part of the project) were indeed infeasible. I don't necessarily recommend this, however, since he was still "contributing" to those projects.

I'd guess there are countries in which holding such views would be problematic, but I don't see the US as one of them.

An alternative, of course, is to mention projects that you would want to work on, rather than those you don't. That might avoid the issue in the short term while you get a degree and can be more readily public about views you think might be unpopular. Tenure is good for that, of course.

And, be aware that lots of things in science, technology, and engineering that were done with the best of intentions have been subverted to evil purpose. For example, lot of advances in big data have been used by large social media companies such as redacted and redacted to build dossiers on much of the public.

-1

I'd suggest: "I would prefer to work on projects that help people. I think technological interdependence is a better way to build international partnerships than deterrence."

It sounds to me like your concerns might be:

  • Warfare is bad.
  • You do not want to form relationships that the US government might disapprove of; perhaps you'd like to work for that government later.
  • You do not want to be perceived as racist/xenophobic for not helping Asians with military projects.

My suggestion avoids all these issues by emphasizing your goals.

I've not worked on military or intelligence projects, but my experience is that those opportunities are fairly easy to spot and, if desired, avoid. While the exact nature of the project is hidden, the entity funding it is not. If it's got an NNSA logo on it, it's nuclear weapons research.

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    Well, except for all the non-nuclear-weapons research done at NNSA labs, including that under Office of Science funding.
    – Jon Custer
    Feb 9 at 22:53
  • @JonCuster The Office of Science and NNSA are both funded by DOE. I think your picture of the structure is different from mine. I know it's a complex structure. Feb 9 at 22:55
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    I am quite aware of how NNSA and the Office of Science are funded. But, note that the Office of Science labs are explicitly open to all (Argonne, Brookhaven, Lawrence Berkeley, Fermilab, Jefferson, etc.). Lots of publications in the open literature from NNSA labs.
    – Jon Custer
    Feb 9 at 23:00
-1

My very short suggestion: think about pursuing your PhD degree based on a "private"[1] company fundings, or in a foreign country where active aggressive militarism is not so strongly embedded in the country ruling elite modus-operandi.

Avoid Russia, China, US, Saudi Arabia.

Think about Iceland, Denmark, Taiwan, Switzerland, since you are looking into power distribution and trasmission, these are countries that are trying to play a role in the green energy production.

Then you can go back to the US and apply for grants and funding opportunities that are in line with your ethics.

[1] private, but I would rather aim at big public utilities that have a well delimited scope, there is always the risk of a private company being eaten up by one of the big defense conglomerate ...

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    what about India?
    – user149718
    Feb 10 at 11:25
  • Is the situation in the US actually as bad as OP indicates that one would need to consider seeking a job elsewhere? Admittedly, at times it gets hard to not be involved with anything military in Russia, but even then it falls under a more general concern of working under (=supporting) a regime you have major ideological disagreements with... Most of the time, at least.
    – Lodinn
    Feb 12 at 8:46
  • @Lodinn the defense corporations in the US are so powerful that they do not need to contribute significatively to presidential elections ( opensecrets.org/industries/indus.php?Ind=D ) and they do not care about the gov't having a rep or dem majority. Even more worrisome, is that the defense sector influence is not tied to some single individuals, but it is a systematic part of US business (see most recent deliveries of weapons to Ukraine and Taiwan ... tenths of bilions of weapons bought by the us gov't from defense corporations, corporations that care only about cashing in).
    – EarlGrey
    Feb 14 at 11:13
  • Well sure but how does that prevent OP from doing research without military ties? I know of two possible major issues: either the military thinks your research is interesting enough you just can't keep doing it in peace anymore or the lab/uni is starved for funding so they take on defense contracts. The latter is by far more prevalent even in Russia, where there are precedents of fairly heavy-handed handling of science... So unless the research won't get funded unless it's military, it should be possible to avoid having these ties, no?
    – Lodinn
    Feb 15 at 0:24

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