Pro-Palestine student demonstrators have been camped out on the front lawn of Johns Hopkins University for more than a week. They’re asking for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip and demanding their school divest from Israeli companies.

And they’re taking aim at a university research facility that receives more than $1 billion every year from the Pentagon.

It’s called the Applied Physics Laboratory — and it’s the reason why Johns Hopkins University is the biggest recipient of defense contracts out of the 15 university research centers the Pentagon funds. The Department of Defense has awarded the university laboratory $12 billion over the past decade, a review of audited financial statements show. That’s nearly twice as much as it’s made in tuition and fees over the same period.

A sprawling facility about 45 minutes away from the Baltimore campus in Howard County, the nonprofit Applied Physics Laboratory employs nearly 9,000 people. Its contracts, mostly from the Pentagon and some from NASA, account for more than a quarter of the university’s revenue, financial records show.

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Scientists at the Applied Physics Laboratory develop artificial intelligence technology that allows a single person to control a swarm of drones for use in urban combat zones. They engineer systems for nuclear weapons. Just last year they slammed a spacecraft into a 525-foot-wide asteroid at 14,000 mph. That project showed it was possible to redirect asteroids and protect the earth from a catastrophic collision.

In addition to receiving money, Hopkins also awards grants to defense contractors, according to tax records. From 2019 to 2022, the university sent at least $250 million to companies and nonprofits that work in the defense sector, including industry giants like Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon.

Many of those contractors also perform work outside the defense industry, but some are explicitly focused on military technology. That includes companies like Tomahawk Robotics, whose CEO in September said their motto is “warfighter first.” Hopkins paid Tomahawk Robotics $7.4 million over the most recent three years for which tax records were available.

“It has become clear that Johns Hopkins is a military research institution with a university as a side project,” a representative of the Hopkins Justice Collective Palestinian Solidarity Encampment said in a statement. Student protesters called on Hopkins to sever its ties with the Pentagon in their list of written demands.

A Hopkins spokesperson declined to comment, citing ongoing negotiations with protesters.

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Reminiscent of the 1968 anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, pro-Palestine protests have swept across college campuses, with a new generation of students looking to separate their schools from the defense spending that has powered American innovation for decades.

Even if Hopkins officials gave in to protesters’ demands, severing ties with the defense industry would be complicated. For example, one member of the university’s board of trustees, a retired Navy admiral, is also on Northrop Grumman’s board of directors.

The lab’s contract with the U.S. Navy, its largest defense agreement, ends in 2027, at which time the university and the Department of Defense will have the option to extend the pact for another five years and $6.2 billion.

Under an agreement with the U.S. government, Hopkins cannot simply shut down its Applied Physics Laboratory. It would need to spin the lab off as a separate nonprofit entity that could continue to do research and development for the military.

That’s what happened in 1973, when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology cut ties with the Draper Laboratory after years of protests related to the Vietnam War. Draper Laboratory continues to operate today as a nonprofit. MIT operates another facility, Lincoln Laboratory, that works in the defense sector.

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Other schools such as the University of Texas at Austin, the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Nebraska receive defense funds, but Hopkins far outpaces them — receiving more than twice as much as any other university.

That legacy stretches back to World War II, when the U.S. government turned to top scientists at universities to help develop military technology. Professors at Columbia University played a central role in the Manhattan Project, America’s secret program to develop nuclear weapons.

As scientists were testing bombs in the desert of New Mexico, a team from Hopkins in 1942 met discreetly inside a mechanic’s shop in Silver Spring — the origin of the Applied Physics Laboratory — to develop another pivotal piece of military technology: the radio proximity fuze.

Considered one of the most important inventions of World War II, the fuze revolutionized missile technology. They caused missiles to detonate when they came near enemy planes, which dramatically increased the odds of shooting them down.

When the war ended, soldiers came home and manufacturers returned to making cars, but scientists never left the lab.

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Instead, it got a lot bigger.

Today, the Applied Physics Laboratory is Howard County’s largest private employer. Although much of its research and development is classified, the laboratory works in a variety of fields, from astronomy to physics to cybersecurity.

It’s this research — fueled largely by defense spending and overseen by universities — that makes modern life possible, said Patrick McCray, a historian of science at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“I always tell my students, ‘Look at your smartphones,’” McCray said. “Every single feature on that smartphone can be traced back in some way to defense spending, or federal government spending.”

Yet these kinds of advances are largely the byproduct of the research’s original intent: to ensure American military superiority.

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In the case of the Applied Physics Laboratory, that means developing some of the world’s most destructive technologies, including the Tomahawk missile. A guided, long-range precision missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead, the Tomahawk has been used in every major American-involved conflict since the Gulf War.

The U.S. supports Israel’s military, but Tomahawk missiles have not been used during the war in Gaza. Now entering its seventh month, the war began Oct. 7, when Hamas launched a surprise attack killing about 1,200 people, including nearly 700 civilians. In response, Israel has launched airstrikes and offensives in Gaza that local health officials say have killed more than 34,000 Palestinians, including women and children. But one Applied Physics Laboratory development, the AEGIS missile defense system, has been used in the region recently.

When Iran fired at least 300 missiles and drones at Israel last month, the U.S. Navy used the AEGIS system and shot down three Iranian missiles, CNN reported.

The Applied Physics Laboratory includes the Tomahawk missile and AEGIS missile defense system on its list of defining innovations. But much of its marketing materials focuses on work derived from the relatively small amount of funding it receives from NASA.

“Students and faculty wouldn’t be so keen that the university is taking on this de facto defense contractor role,” said Alicia Sanders-Zakre, a policy and research coordinator at the Switzerland-based International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. That group identified Hopkins in a 2019 report as a direct contributor to the development of nuclear weapons through a U.S. Air Force contract.

As a graduate student at Columbia University, Hampshire College professor Michael Klare participated in the anti-war protests of the 1960s. A historian and writer who has studied defense funding for more than 50 years, he sees a lot of parallels in that movement and the current wave of demonstrations.

Individual universities cannot stop the U.S. government from researching and developing weapons, Klare said, but Hopkins could force a large conversation about the ethics of weapons research by cutting ties to the Applied Physics Lab.

“This would only occur after a lot of soul-searching on campus and I think that would be very valuable,” Klare said. “I think the leadership of the university needs to confront what [the lab] is doing.”

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