In these times of dwindling funding for education and research, the University of Arizona department of Optical Sciences is delighted to be sharing an initial $12.3 million in Department of Defense research funding with three leading aerospace firms, incl uding Tucson's Hughes Missiles Systems Co. Together, these firms and the university have formed the Conformal Optics Technology Consortium.
Robert R. Shannon, UA optical sciences professor emeritus and principal investigator of the program, said, at a recent press conference, that the consortium's aim is to develop "optical components that are shaped to meet the environmental and space limits imposed by modern missile and aircraft configuration." The traditional spherical shape of optic windows, he said, produces drag and heat resistance.
In other words, the UA is working to improve weapons technology. However, after talking on the telephone with Dean B. McKenney of Hughes Missiles Co. and with UA President Manuel Pacheco, I received the growing impression that in suggesting that this rese arch will make it easier to kill large numbers of people, I was raising a needlessly tactless question.
Asked whether weapons-related research was consistent with the aims of higher education ("education" derives from the Latin "e duco," meaning "I lead out" - implying a leading out of darkness into enlightenment), Dr. Pacheco played down the relevance of p ossible military applications of the research.
"I don't think that's the purpose," Pacheco said. "Universities are the agents for pushing forward knowledge and new technology. This is developing technology that allows direction for missiles, but it also has other applications."
"Other applications" were the consolation prize I was offered at every turn. It seems that it's quite OK to work on devices intended to kill human beings, as long as other, different human beings are rewarded with an improved lifestyle.
McKenney, who is also a principal investigator on the project, had the same approach. "There is a whole host of applications for advancements in optics," he assured me, "from cameras and movie-making to space exploration and medical technology. Society be nefits at all levels."
McKenney was enthusiastic over the closer connection between Hughes and the university. Comparing the project to an internship for students, he said that those aiming for high-tech jobs after graduation will have the opportunity to gain valuable hands-on experience.
The image of weapons researchers as Santa Claus - like figures dispensing technological marvels and improved job opportunities is a curious one, given the reality of the missiles' destructive power.
"I personally am not thrilled with the intended use of the weapons," said McKenney, adding that he sees them mainly as a vital deterrent. "I don't think about it too much," he said.
The university's apparent lack of opposition to this optical research is surprising, considering its decision to divest its 5,555 shares in RJR Nabisco, a manufacturer of cigarettes. The reason for this move? Cigarettes kill people. The university eviden tly feels a responsibility to take a stand against the dangers of tobacco.
Maybe the tobacco companies would fare better if they could suggest a few tantalizing "other applications" for their product. Even World Wars I and II, as both Pacheco and McKenney reminded me, produced immeasurable advancements in science and medicine.
This raises an interesting question: If the choice had been available in 1914 whether to have two world wars, or to wait considerably longer for new technology and new manufacturing materials, how would we choose?
"Let's go ahead and have the wars - it'll be worth it." No. The idea is ludicrous, of course. But in focusing on improved technology, and downplaying the fact that missiles are for killing people, this is exactly the decision the university is making.
However, Dr. Pacheco believes it is for society as a whole, not the university, to make ethical judgments on military-funded research.
"Nobody has the right to play God," Pacheco said.
I agree. Some issues are just too big for any one group to address adequately. Maybe that's why He's given us a few guidelines. There are ten of them, and one says, "thou shalt not kill."
Kaye Patchett is a creative writing senior. Her column, "On Reflection'" appears every other Wednesday.