The Ministry of Defence has disclosed details of its chemical and biological warfare contracts in universities in a move to reduce Government secrecy.
The chemical and biological warfare establishment at Porton Down in Wiltshire funds 42 contracts in 21 universities. The contracts, none of which are classified, are worth a total of Pounds 5 million.
Since the 1940s, university scientists have been carrying out research for Porton Down, periodically attracting protests from peace campaigners and the left. Until now Porton Down has not divulged information about individual research contracts.
In a break with the past, Porton Down asked academics whether or not they were willing to allow this information to be made public. Nineteen agreed, nine refused, while the others did not respond.
In a parliamentary answer to Labour MP Ken Livingstone, Porton Down disclosed the titles, cost and duration of contracts which it is funding at the universities of Birmingham, Bristol, Durham, Hull, Leeds, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, Southampton, Warwick, Umist and University College, Swansea.
Umist has the highest number of contracts - five worth a total of Pounds 780,000, while Birmingham has three worth Pounds 450,000.
Porton Down has claimed that for the past 30 years, all its work has been devoted to devising ways of protecting soldiers against chemical and biological attack, and not actually developing new weapons.
But sceptics have countered that Porton Down has been so secretive about its activities that it was not possible to know whether this claim was true or not.
Alan Townshend, professor in the school of chemistry at Hull University, has been awarded a Pounds 56,000, three-year contract from Porton Down to study ways of detecting the presence of nerve gases to find out if they have been used. He said he had no qualms about the contract. "I am very happy that it is being done entirely in a defensive way. There is nothing to do with actual use of chemical weapons. It is a way of counter-acting them. If I thought there was anything untoward we certainly would not do it."