Universities to receive direct defence ministry funding

Taiwan’s defence ministry is to finance research and development of defence-related technologies at universities for the first time in a new programme which could see up to 150 graduate students funded over the next five years.

Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense, together with the Ministry of Science and Technology, have been jointly allocated NT$5 billion (US$147 million) by the government over the next five years for the programme to focus on information security and robotics, artificial intelligence, the internet of things and quantum computing, which Wu Tsung-tsong, Taiwan’s minister of science and technology, said last month were key to defence technology development.

The two ministries plan to select up to six universities to establish research centres under the programme.

“This is the first time to [fund research] directly from the ministry of defence to universities,” said Chen Ming-Syan, executive vice president of National Taiwan University (NTU) in Taipei.

“In the past the government gave research grants to some quasi-government organisations and then universities applied for research grants to those organisations, so it was indirect. This time the ministry of defence would like to set up research centres in major universities in Taiwan. NTU is certainly one of the main candidates to set up a research centre,” Chen told University World News.

Chen said the university would set up the NTU Advanced Technology Research Centre as part of the project. “All of the NTU research teams interested in defence-related technology will be partnered and coordinated in this centre.

“It will be basic research at the university level,” he said. “The aim of the NTU project is to strengthen the mechanism of cooperation between national defence technology and university-oriented research ability. By combining military goals with academia support, independent innovation can be enhanced to speed up the development of defence-related technology.”

He added: “This project will contribute the high-quality educational manpower and innovative research results to industry to meet the mission requirements of future defence-related technological development blueprints and advanced research issues.

“The current status is that we submitted a proposal and this is being deliberated [on] by our ministry of science and technology and ministry of defence. They have set up a committee to review it.”

More ‘efficient’ direct funding

Academics said that direct funding from the defence ministry, while sensitive, is seen as a more efficient use of research funding and eliminates the need for ‘middleman’ bodies that channelled such funding – although much smaller amounts – to universities for defence-linked research.

Research funding provided in the past to universities like NTU included funding for radar technologies and underwater technologies, and these would continue but with direct funding. “This will be pretty much the same as we did before,” Chen said.

The military-affiliated National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology (NCSIST) has specialised in defence technology research and development but there is now greater demand for civilian applications and a need for interdisciplinary talent, said Andrew Yeh, deputy executive secretary for the Executive Yuan’s Office of Science and Technology, at a press conference in mid-December.

This month Taiwan media reported that NCSIST had developed an extended-range version of the Hsiung Feng IIE cruise missile, with a range of 1,200 kilometres making it capable of hitting inland military installations in mainland China.

Dual-use technologies – for both civilian and military use – have also become more important and include artificial intelligence and neural networks, cybersecurity, materials technology and others, which have a strong research base in universities.

“Taiwan is now becoming one of the most important places for information and communications technology. NTU innovations can be seamlessly bridged to the product-oriented industry to fulfil the demands of national defence,” Chen said.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has made homegrown defence a top economic priority since she was first elected in 2016, and has stepped up military spending substantially.

The stepped-up defence research budget is in response to Beijing’s more aggressive military posture across the Taiwan straits and in the South China Sea in general. It has recently increased its rhetoric to carry out its longstanding threat to use military force to unify Taiwan, over which it claims sovereignty, with the mainland.