Carnegie Mellon University’s Squirrel Hill campus on Feb. 14. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Nearly $30 million to explore how artificial intelligence could support national security and defense. More than $13 million to research threat recognition tools that could increase a soldier’s “lethality and survivability.” Almost $2 million for a drone corridor. 

These are all contracts and grants that Carnegie Mellon University has received from the U.S. Department of Defense, which oversees the armed forces. The department funds a large portion of the university’s research, committing more than $2.8 billion in awards to CMU since the government’s 2008 fiscal year, federal data shows.   

The vast majority of highly selective private research universities received much smaller commitments over that same period. Only the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Johns Hopkins University, both known for their prolific research activity, have eclipsed CMU, with their commitments respectively totaling about $18 billion and $15.5 billion.

The funding has sparked protest among students who believe CMU’s acceptance of defense dollars makes the university complicit in war efforts they morally disagree with. This month, dozens of activists rallied on campus, decrying what they called “the CMU-to-war-machine pipeline.” One organizing group demanded the university cut ties with the U.S. military and its contractors, especially as the war in Gaza continues.

Read more: Pitt and CMU have grown wealthier through private, offshore investments. We followed the money.

Peter Kerwin, a spokesperson for CMU, wrote in a statement that the university does not conduct weapons research and partners with the Defense Department on “a variety of cutting edge research in healthcare, engineering and cybersecurity.” Faculty choose whether to conduct research and seek funding from the department, he added.

Working on defense-related projects “allows the university to be part of important conversations about ethics and moral decision-making, areas where our scholars offer a wealth of experience and expertise,” Kerwin wrote. “This contribution to national security is a part of the university’s mission.”

Those research projects also contribute to the university’s “very high research activity” that has earned it R1 status from the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. R1 status means a university is a top-tier research university, a credential that helps it recruit top-notch faculty and obtain more prestigious grants. 

But the research funding isn’t the only point of contention among activists. 

The university has a decadeslong relationship with American defense contractor Lockheed Martin, which has provided fighter jets to the Israel Defense Forces. CMU’s CyLab, a security and privacy research institute, partners with Raytheon, which provides the U.S. and its allies with missiles and combat vehicles.  

Against Carceral Tech, one of the local organizations that co-sponsored the February rally, has demanded that the university prohibit defense contractors from recruiting and speaking on campus and has urged students to “Withhold your labor from companies and research projects that are complicit in the evils of militarism.” 

“We know that the university can’t, necessarily, control the streams of its research funding,” said Darya Kharabi, a CMU alumni and organizer with Against Carceral Tech. “That said, CMU does have a number of things that it can control, including the normalization of militarism on campus through bringing on military contractors.” 

Less than 1% of employed students who graduated between 2020 and 2023 worked for the defense industry as their first job, according to survey data from the university.  Kerwin did not respond to a question regarding the extent to which military contractors recruit on campus. 

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Money flows from the Department of Defense

The university says that it spent nearly $200 million in research funding from the department in its 2022 fiscal year. That accounted for about 43% of the $466 million the university spent on research that year.

CMU has at least 22 active contracts with the Department of Defense that are collectively valued at about $1.1 billion, according to federal data. Along with the contracts, the university is set to receive approximately $121 million through at least 89 active grants from the department. PublicSource analyzed the awards to understand the nature of the university’s funded research. 

The largest awards, worth more than $1 billion, fund CMU’s Software Engineering Institute. The institute conducts research for the government in cybersecurity and artificial intelligence engineering, and it’s one of 10 federally funded research and development centers in the nation that the Defense Department sponsors. 

Taking down the American flag at Carnegie Mellon University’s campus on Feb. 14. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Artificial intelligence is a focus of several awards. One contract, worth about $13.4 million, is intended to help the U.S. Army use artificial intelligence to “fortify the nation’s security and defense” and protect soldiers. Another, worth about $5 million, vaguely pertains to “AI fusion.” A third, worth nearly $1 million, is to investigate the ability of artificial intelligence systems to “enable decision dominance in volatile environments.”

Military partnerships with higher education stretch back decades. During World War II, the government recruited physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, from the University of California, Berkeley, and other scientists to build the first atomic bomb. The Defense Department now wants to weaponize artificial intelligence to compete with China in an “intensifying military-technology arms race,” according to Reuters. 

That mission likely makes CMU, with its expertise in artificial intelligence, a desirable partner for the department, said Michael Klare, a professor emeritus of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College. Klare, however, believes that taking military funding often conflicts with the missions of universities.

“It’s not money going to climate change. It’s not going to alleviating poverty. It’s not going to rebuild Pittsburgh. So, what is it going for?” Klare said. “It’s going to turn Carnegie Mellon into a bastion of AI researchers and robotic researchers developing tools for warfare. Is that what you want your university to be?”

He added: “The hypocrisy is that all of this is [supposed to be] for the common good, and for the betterment of humankind, and for Pittsburgh.”

Among the web of military contracts, some of CMU’s work is oriented toward sparing lives. This includes research into the autonomous delivery of battlefield trauma care and ambulatory artificial lung support with awards worth roughly $5.4 million and $8.6 million, for example. Others are categorized as basic and applied research, including a roughly $780,000 grant related to “network optimization problems.”

Ilyas Khan, second from right, a student at Carnegie Mellon University, speaks on the environmental sustainability of CMU and University of Pittsburgh investments during a protest outside of Pitt’s Board of Trustees meeting in the William Pitt Union on Pitt’s Oakland campus, on Feb. 8. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Emelia Probasco, a veteran and senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, said the defense funding that universities receive is often “far removed” from weapons systems. The department frequently funds research that supports health care, cybersecurity and back-office functions, Probasco said.

“A blanket rejection of anything that has to do with the military doesn’t seem to take into account all that the military does,” Probasco said. “It is an important source of funding for a whole lot of basic research that never sees a conflict.” 

Ilyas Khan, a sophomore and organizer with Against Carceral Tech who participated in the February rally, rejects these shades of gray. They said that the Defense Department and other government agencies create “technology that they can use in either combat or here in the United States for homeland security, which really are excuses to take away the rights of other folks.”

“I felt, as a student of Carnegie Mellon, that it’s wrong for me to participate in this university and not challenge that behavior,” they said.

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Exploring the ethics of research

Some professors nationwide, including CMU’s Illah Nourbakhsh, have turned down or refused to seek funding from the department. Nourbakhsh, co-director of the university’s Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment [CREATE] Lab, was involved in anti-war movements during both Gulf Wars and said he’s “very much a person that’s interested in peace.”

“The fundamental idea behind it is, wouldn’t it be cool to invent technologies that you hope get used, rather than inventing technologies that you hope never need to get used?” Nourbakhsh said. 

He recognizes that many faculty at the university can’t take his approach. Because faculty are responsible for securing their own research funding, that scramble can prevent them from turning down opportunities, he said. Aside from funding concerns, Nourbakhsh said some faculty consider their research with the Defense Department a patriotic duty.

People work below paintings of the Nobel Laureate Gallery in Carnegie Mellon University’s David A. Tepper Quadrangle, a $202 million, five-story building, on Feb. 14, in Squirrel Hill North. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Probasco, the researcher at Georgetown University, said that “I sometimes wonder what the world would be like if universities didn’t participate at all” in research for the department. 

“I don’t think the situation would be better. I think it might be much worse. And having a democracy where you have people who loudly disagree with one another and gather the evidence and present it publicly is so important,” she said.

Nourbakhsh doesn’t believe the university should create rules around its defense funding, as he said those research projects are not the only ones that can have harmful outcomes. Instead, he wants his students to learn to make moral judgments about the research they conduct and the jobs they take after graduation. He’s taught a class on ethics in technology at the university for 30 years. 

Such a class would have benefited Cella Sum years ago. Sum, a doctoral student at CMU’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute, said she worked for a defense contractor after receiving her bachelor’s degree. She “was fed into the military industrial complex pipeline pretty easily” and believed her work would impact the world positively.

After she helped develop a game that simulated battle scenes in the Middle East, she quit, she said. Now, she’s an organizer with Against Carceral Tech.

“I would love for other students to take it upon themselves to learn as much as they can, and to know that there’s another path possible for them,” she said. “They can refuse to take funding and work on projects that ultimately harm people.”

This story was fact-checked by Elizabeth Szeto.

Higher education reporter for PublicSource in partnership with Open Campus.