Public funding of science and technology in Britain is too focused on weapons-based research. So claims “Soldiers in the Laboratory”, a report released this week by Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR), a lobby group backed by some of Britain's best-known researchers.

The report, written by Chris Langley, a neurobiologist with the Hertfordshire-based consultancy ScienceSources, asserts that up to half of British public spending on military research and development should be diverted to more socially useful activities. It recommends spheres such as land-mine detection, conflict resolution, and water management.

SGR, a group of 600 scientists whose supporters include physicist Stephen Hawking and astronomer royal Martin Rees, argues in its report that such a shift would benefit both national security and economic competitiveness. It says that security would be better served by addressing global poverty issues, and that some British engineering companies would be fitter if they had to compete in non-military markets.

According to Stuart Parkinson, an electronic engineer and the group's director, Britain spends 31% of its research and development budget on military work, a proportion that is exceeded only by the United States.

The report argues that “the military sector has a disproportionate effect on science, engineering and technology”. Links between the military and the academic world are increasing, it says, citing the 2002 launch of the Defence Technology Centres — collaborations between industry, government and universities who work on defence problems. Three such centres exist so far, involving 18 British universities. And British companies with major interests in military research, such as BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce, currently fund some academic posts.

In a statement, the UK Ministry of Defence said that its weapons research is geared towards making weapons more accurate and bringing fighting to a “swift conclusion”, reducing civilian casualties.

Parkinson is not sure that the UK government will heed the report's advice. But he feels that the time is right to raise such issues. “Since the end of the cold war, discussion around military research and development has almost disappeared,” he says. “We'd like to reopen that debate.”