Britain’s top university placed a bid on a government military contract that aimed to study ways to manipulate information and “shape attitudes and beliefs” – news that raised the eyebrows of British academics.

According to leaked documents seen by Cambridge’s student newspaper, Varsity, the university competed for a multimillion-pound military research programme led by the Ministry of Defence.

The project, called the Human Social Science Research Capability (HSSRC) programme, was designed to deliver research into human capabilities, ostensibly the aim of building a better military.

According to a Ministry of Defence presentation, it focused on six areas of research, which includes personnel, training and education, humans in systems, human performance, and enhancing medical systems and capabilities.

The sixth area was titled “understanding and influencing human behaviour”; specifically, the research would cover “the challenges of rapidly developing information technologies and their impacts on social interactions and cohesion within and across generations and cultures” as well as “automation and cyber warfare and their influence on trust in technologies and democracy”.

The government earmarked £69 million ($92.4 million) for the HSSRC project; if selected, Cambridge would receive up to one-tenth of this money over four years. Its researchers would also receive £20m in research funding, while the university would also be able to compete for research funding worth £42m.

Cambridge’s General Board of the Faculties approved the bid in June 2018, and the university was among the four shortlisted institutions at the final stage of the bidding process, but eventually decided to pull out for unclear reasons.

The Defence, Security and Technology Laboratory — the agency within the Ministry of Defence that placed the tender — mentioned “potential reputational risks” of the programme, vowing to mitigate them through “a targeted communications effort” which would stress “the positive impact of the University’s involvement”.

According to the Guardian, a spokesperson for DSTL said that this research was focused on “communicating with overseas audiences and deterring adversaries who threaten the UK’s interests”.

Varsity reported that over 40 Cambridge academics sent a letter to the vice-chancellor, saying that the university is not supposed to “involve staff in armed conflicts by acting as a supplier of contract research to the MoD”.

“Undertaking government-funded contract research of this nature is troubling enough, but looking to profit from it is shocking. What kind of paying clients did you imagine would have wanted to buy services such as these?” they were quoted as saying.

A senior university manager was quoted as saying that it was “entirely appropriate” for researchers to apply for the tender.

It comes weeks after hackers exposed the activities of the Integrity Initiative — a US government-led project which is ostensibly devoted to combating disinformation but appeared to be mostly focused on targeting Russia’s influence in Europe.

According to the exposé, the Integrity Initiative consists of a network of clusters involving pundits, academicians and journalists, which are meddling in the domestic affairs of EU member states and waging an information campaign targeting Russia.

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