McGill’s new Policy on the Conduct of Research goes to a vote in Senate on March 24 and will not include any clauses that regulate research with potentially harmful applications. A discussion on this issue took place in a live radio broadcast hosted by CKUT radio last Tuesday.
Over the past six months, many senators – in particular, student senators – have voiced their concerns about the lack of strict regulations in this new research policy. The McGill administration and other opposition to regulations on harmful research have, in many occasions, responded to these concerns by referring to McGill’s rigorous ethical review process. However, supporters of these regulations argue that existing research ethics committees only govern very limited areas of research.
“There are all these different statements made to the appropriate research ethics committee but one problem I see is that all these ethics committees are interested particularly in the immediate ramification of research…[like] if you have human or animal subjects…but they aren’t really asking of the researchers what are the long-term implications of this research…. It may have been only a simple checkmark in a box [in the old policy], but at least there was some form of accountability before,” said Arts senator Sarah Woolf.
In the old policy, there was a section requiring that “applicants for contracts or grants whose source is a government military agency shall indicate on the check list/approval form of the Office of Technology Transfer or the Research Grants Office whether this research has direct harmful consequences.” This section was removed from the new policy.
At the second reading of the new policy, reference to social responsibility was added to the preamble to address the concerns raised at the first reading in November. Rebecca Dooley, SSMU VP (University Affairs), argued that this was not adequate.
“They put everything that has to do with harmful applications and social responsibility in the preamble of the policy. I don’t know how accountable you can hold someone to the preamble…instead of one of the really hard-hitting clauses within a policy that people are usually held more accountable to,” said Dooley.
According to Nikki Bozinoff, member of Demilitarize McGill and former Daily editor, the administration has long been overlooking the approval form required in the old policy.
“Slowly this checkbox form was being watered down…and at the same time, we received information from other campuses that the Vice President (Research) at McGill had been in contact with their administrations telling them that McGill didn’t have such a policy,” said Bozinoff.
Bozinoff was referring to a letter that Denis Thérien, McGill VP (Research and International Relations), wrote to Ted Hewitt, University of Western Ontario VP (Research & International Relations), after discussions on military-funded research that took place in October of 2007 among the Group of 13 VPs of Research.
“Based on our discussion, it was clear that…no institution currently undertakes, or is contemplating undertaking any formal assessment of military projects on ethical or other grounds not already stipulated by existing guidelines. Nor would we endorse the creation of any national body to establish guidelines for such a Process,” Thérien wrote in his letter.
This letter reveals that the administration’s intentions to remove these clauses had developed more than two years prior to the current policy review – the same year Demilitarize McGill had exposed the thermobaric explosives research conducted by the Shockwave Physics Research Group in Mechanical Engineering. Thermobaric explosives have been used extensively by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan.
According to Cleve Higgins, member of Demilitarize McGill, the administration has yet to make a public response regarding this ongoing research. Whenever discussions on military research have come up in the past, the administration would respond by listing positive research done using military funds, which includes research on prosthetic limbs and malaria prevention.
“The U.S. military basically has said outright that…this research [at McGill] is useful for the U.S. in developing weapons…. It’s a pretty clear connection…yet McGill ignores that. And in ignoring its happening and not responding to it, they’re also not dealing with it at a policy level…. They won’t address the fact that there is research that could have [harmful applications],” said Higgins.
Even with the approval form, the existing policy is unable to restrict the ongoing weapons research.
“We noticed that increasingly the Canadian military has ties with the computer engineering researchers at McGill. This is stuff like automated target recognition: the kind of aerial weapons that could be programmed and not controlled by humans,” said Bozinoff.
Bozinoff finds it problematic that universities across North America are neglecting to implement policies to monitor the harmful application of research. The administration, among others, worries that having such policies might infringe on academic freedom, and that it would be a burden for researchers to consider all the potential applications of their work. However, Bozinoff challenges these notions.
“In the same way we might do environmental impact assessment when we’re conducting research…when we’re doing research on weapons, we need to think about what are the long-term implications of this research,” said Bozinoff. “Research is increasingly end-specific, so these days we see research that is specifically designed to create weapons, or specifically designed to engineer crops that will not be able to reproduce, and therefore set up long-term inequities and poverty…. So this research that does have specific end applications is happening, and it’s that kind of research [on which] Demilitarize McGill is interested in [enforcing] research transparency.”
Senator Richard Janda, a professor in the Faculty of Law, further argues that researchers have a social responsibility to be aware of any negative externalities that their research might have.
“We’ve been hearing that it’s too cumbersome…but the fact is our social responsibilities require us to think about things that are not entirely certain and all that we’re asking researchers to do is think about the problem, report about it, and have the University keep track of this…. Seems to me it’s entirely consistent with the role of the University,” said Janda.
The existing regulations on military-funded research were first created in 1988. These amendments were passed following a three-day occupation of the VP (Research) office and the release of a 250-page report, titled “How to Make a Killing,” by seven McGill students working with political science professor Samuel Noumoff. The report detailed various research projects at McGill that were funded by American and Canadian military agencies.
David Schulze, a lawyer who, as a graduate student, took part in pressuring McGill to take steps in governing weapons research in 1988, was amused by the fact that the administration is trying to remove the regulations they “won” 20 years ago.
“I always felt we’ve been out-manoeuvred, that we didn’t accomplish that much with the checkboxes. I kind of feel better now knowing the admin wants to get rid of it – I guess at least we did something, or else they wouldn’t want to get rid of it,” said Schulze. “McGill, like most institutions, likes to wrap everything up in some big mushy consensus…. I don’t think we should fool ourselves…. The [military] research, by all counts, has continued now for 40 years with [or] without the checkboxes.”
Last month, Janda submitted a proposal of changes to the new policy for the Academic Policy Committee to review. His proposal, however, was not accepted. The reasons for the rejection have not been disclosed to him. The proposed changes would have allowed Senate to review all research that had potentially harmful applications – without any changes incorporated in the new policy, it is unlikely that there will be any policies in place to monitor ongoing and new research that have harmful impacts on society.