The links are worth £8 million a year to the higher education sector and fund physics, materials science, high-performance computing and manufacturing research, as well as academic posts, studentships and conference support, the report says.
Some of the research is believed to have “dual use potential” – in both civilian and military applications – claims the two-year study published by Nuclear Information Service (NIS) and Medact, who both campaign against nuclear weapons proliferation.
The report found that five universities have “strategic alliances” with the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) – where the UK’s nuclear weapons are designed an manufactured - with some of the relationships worth millions of pounds.
The AWE has also developed partnerships with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Science and Technology Facilities Council, says the Atoms for Peace report published today.
Pete Wilkinson, director of the NIS, warned universities and researchers “of the risks from being seduced into murky waters by the lure of the Atomic Weapons Establishment’s cash”.
“While some of the research work funded by the AWE in British universities provides benefits to society and is welcome, work which will allow the UK to retain and develop its nuclear weapons over the long term has no place on the campus,” he said.
NIS and Medact used the Freedom of Information Act to gather the data and say that this is the first time that a description of the links between universities and the AWE has been published.
In a statement the EPSRC said: “AWE has unique research capabilities and assets and is a highly valued partner to EPSRC, contributing significantly to the UK’s overall research endeavour.”
It added: “EPSRC is party to both the concordat to support research integrity published by Universities UK in 2012 and to the Research Council UK policy and guidelines on the governance of good research conduct. We, of course, expect all the research we fund to be conducted in line with these policies and know that our partners share our commitment to such standards.”
The AWE’s five strategic alliances involve the University of Bristol, University of Cambridge, Cranfield University, Heriot-Watt University and Imperial College London, the report says. Under these agreements, the AWE awarded Imperial College more than £7.7 million between 2010 and mid-2012, and Cranfield University more than £3.3 million over the same period, it claims.
The University of Cambridge has received almost £2 million from the AWE since 2010, it adds. A statement from Cambridge said: “The Cavendish Laboratory has long standing links with the AWE dating back over 30 years. Everything we do with them is basic research to assist the AWE in its roles of ensuring the safety of the nuclear armament stockpile and as the UN agency responsible for upholding the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.”
A spokesman for Imperial College said that the AWE supports “fundamental research” that “is in line with the College’s academic mission and interests”.
The spokesman added: “AWE-funded research at Imperial leads to understanding and applications that contribute significantly to the public good, including a better understanding of earthquakes, extreme weather events and the damage caused to people by explosions and blasts.”
Cranfield said it had supported the UK defence community through its research since its formation as the College of Aeronautics in 1946. “We are proud that this work has helped protect the men and women of the Armed Services who put their lives at risk daily on behalf of our nation and to have contributed, in part, to the post-conflict reconstruction of nations around the world,” a spokesman said.
However, Mr Wilkinson said that universities and individual researchers were responsible for ensuring that research meets “accepted ethical standards”.
The report advises that university ethics committees should be more pro-active at giving advice to researchers funded by the AWE about “dual use” dilemmas.
It also contains a set of guidelines for universities and researchers to help navigate the ethical issues of AWE-funded research.