Commentary  Hyde Park: Higher learning or higher-tech weapons?

Weapons, to state the obvious, are extremely complicated. High-tech explosives are not something your average McGill student understands particularly well. This may be one reason why the student body, as a whole, is relatively under-informed about ongoing weapons research taking place at our University.

Yet perhaps there are other reasons why students remain in the dark – like the fact that “transparent” is not a word one would use to describe McGill’s internal machinations. Or the fact that it takes a tremendous amount of public pressure to get the University to create a process for the ethical evaluation of academic research.

Here’s a story for you: in 1987, a group of former McGill students occupied the Vice Principal of Research’s office, demanding an end to two decades of military research at McGill. Specifically, the group spoke out against the ongoing research into fuel-air explosives carried out by two professors, Knystautas and Lee, in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Since 1967, their explosives research had received hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding contracts from various American military agencies, including the U.S. Air Force and the Department of National Defense.

Fuel-air explosives (FAEs) were first developed by the United States for use in Vietnam in the 1960s and seventies. More recently, these weapons – now known as “thermobaric” explosives – have been used in military offensives in Afghanistan and Iraq.

According to Human Rights Watch, FAEs are devastating weapons, up to 16 times more destructive than conventional high explosives, and at times rivalling the effects of low-yield nuclear explosives. Thermobarics work like this: first, a blast scatters fuel into the air, where it mixes with oxygen and flows around objects into any space that is not hermetically sealed. A second blast detonates the cloud of fuel, producing an explosion and shockwave, whose sheer pressure is strong enough to kill – usually by rupturing the lungs and internal organs. According to Human Rights Watch, use of this “particularly brutal” weapon carries “important humanitarian implications.”

After the 1987 James Administration occupation, in response to escalating pressure, McGill amended its Regulations on Research Policy in 1988 to require professors to file an ethics evaluation for any military-funded research. This policy subsequently came under criticism, since the only people evaluating the research were the researchers themselves. Public accountability remained virtually nil, since these reports were not brought before Senate as the policy required.

In 2009, the McGill community is not much wiser. Research into thermobaric explosives continues, now under Engineering Professor David Frost. Although no longer funded directly by the military, this research is conducted in collaboration with military researchers, with no opportunity for public evaluation of its harmful applications.

Yet change is in the air – perhaps. At the General Assembly this February, students voted to oppose all research into thermobaric explosives at McGill. In November 2008, SSMU voted overwhelmingly to support the establishment of an ethical and transparent military research policy at McGill. And on March 4, 2009, Senate will vote on a new University policy governing research ethics. But it remains to be seen whether the new policy’s final version will strengthen ethics procedures for military research – or whether it will write them out of existence altogether.

Whether or not we all understand the engineering behind bombs, ethics are everybody’s business.

Nat Marshik is a member of Dimilitarize McGill and a U3 Women’s Studies student. You can contact Demilitarize McGill at or See their event listing in What’s the haps.