Should STEM providers stop teaming up with weapons manufacturers?

(Reposted from: The Educator Australia, December 21, 2023).

By Brett Henebery

In recent years, Australian students’ declining performance in STEM subjects and a lack of qualified teachers has caused alarm for the nation’s future workforce and its ability to tackle complex challenges as we head into a future likely to be dominated by AI and automation.

“Education departments in these states have accepted our argument that companies that manufacture, sell, or promote weapons, such as Lockheed Martin, create significant social harm, and that children should not be exposed to their influence.”

Of particular concern are reports highlighting Australia’s growing skill shortages and recruitment challenges that could leave many critical industries short-staffed.

Last year, a report by the National Skills Commission found that jobs in STEM fields are expected to grow by 14.2% in coming years, twice as fast as non-STEM occupations.

For its part, the Federal Government recently announced a $128.5m plan that will allow Australian universities to apply for 4,000 additional Commonwealth supported places (CSPs) targeted at graduates in STEM courses. More than 800 of these will go to South Australian universities as part of the Cooperation Agreement to support the construction of nuclear submarines that will be built in Adelaide as part of the AUKUS security pact.

Another initiative that has been working to improve young people’s STEM education is The National Youth Science Forum (NYSF) which, since 1984, has been supporting and creating opportunities to connect young Australians with diverse science and technology pathways.

In January 2024, more than 500 participants from across Australia will attend one of two program sessions – in Canberra at the Australian National University or in Brisbane at the University of Queensland.

A double-edged sword?

In January 2022, the Forum’s work was bolstered when Lockheed Martin signed a two-year contract with the NYSF that allows the Forum to showcase the kinds of study paths, careers, and opportunities that are available to young people interested in all fields of STEM.

“Advancing STEM is a critical focus area. Our future success depends on a constant supply of highly trained capable talent for the nation,” Lockheed Martin Australia Chief Executive Warren McDonald said in a statement following the renewed contract.

“Together with the NYSF we are committed to growing the future STEM workforce here in Australia.”

However, links between weapons manufacturers and educational institutions and programs are now coming under increased scrutiny as the wars in Europe and the Middle East escalate and China warns that the AUKUS pact will only destabilise the already precarious geopolitical situation in the South China Sea.

While major weapons manufacturers facilitate crucial hands-on training and skills in STEM for millions of young people worldwide, they are at the same time instrumental in perpetuating wars, one of which has the potential to escalate into a global conflict and bring those same young people untold harm.

So, should Australia’s STEM providers really be teaming up with weapons manufacturers?

A duty of care

This week, Teachers for Peace (TFP), a national organisation of educators working for peace and disarmament, wrote to the National Youth Science Forum asking it to sever ties with Lockheed Martin, warning the Forum “faces a serious reputational risk” as long as it continues the partnership.

“Lockheed Martin profits from war and human suffering and is associated with controversial weapons, corporate misconduct, and allegations of serious human rights abuses and war crimes,” TFP director, Elise West wrote.

Since the outbreak of war in Palestine and Israel, public attention has also been drawn to Lockheed Martin’s role in supplying fighter jets, transport planes, missiles, and rocket systems to Israel, West noted.

“Lockheed Martin is implicated in a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, with children being especially affected,” she wrote.

“In the first three weeks of the war, more children were reported killed in Gaza than the annual number of children killed across the world’s conflict zones since 2019, according to Save the Children. As an organization serving young people, this statistic should be of grave concern to NYSF.”

West also pointed out that, as a result of TFP’s advocacy, there have been changes in education policy in Victoria, NSW, and Queensland that NYSF should consider.

“Education departments in these states have accepted our argument that companies that manufacture, sell, or promote weapons, such as Lockheed Martin, create significant social harm, and that children should not be exposed to their influence,” West wrote.

In Victoria, “companies involved in the sale or promotion of weapons” have been added to the list of “inappropriate organisations” in the Teaching and Learning Resources – Selecting Appropriate Materials policy, while in NSW, the Commercial Arrangements, Sponsorship, and Donations policy has been updated to add “weapons manufacturers” to the list of excluded organisations.

In Queensland, the Sponsorship policy has been amended to include organizations “involved in the manufacturing or selling of weapons” to the list of unacceptable sponsor organizations.

“These changes put companies like Lockheed Martin on par with harmful and stigmatised industries like tobacco, alcohol, gambling, and junk food,” West wrote.

“NYSF must recognise that it has a duty of care to protect children from harmful influence and that it has an obligation to remain compliant with education policy in the jurisdictions in which it operates.”

NYSF CEO Dr Melanie Bagg and Lockheed Martin Australia have been contacted for comment.

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