McGill is looking to update its policy on military research for the first time since 1991, but senators will have to wait until May 20 before discussing changes to the Regulations on Research Policy.
In the past, McGill professors have collaborated with the American and Canadian militaries, although this may cause conflicts with the policy’s preamble, which states that “[Research] should be used to increase knowledge in ways that do not harm society.”
In the fall, Demilitarize McGill, a student group against military-funded research at McGill, learned that the administration was updating the existing policy, and decided to create their own draft for consideration after reviewing two drafts from William Foster, Associate Provost (Policies and Procedures).
According to Cleve Higgins, U3 Sociology and IDS and a member of Demilitarize McGill, the last draft they received, dated on February 2, is not adequate.
“We’ve [suggested making] it mandatory for research that is funded or in collaboration with a military agency to go to [a review] committee,” Higgins explained.
McGill currently requires professors receiving grants or contracts from military organizations to evaluate the consequences of their own research. The February 2 draft proposal stipulates that military-related projects must receive the approval of a research review committee, although the law gives the Board of Governors discretion to approve or reject all contracts, whether related to military research or not.
However, according to Higgins, professors could choose whether or not to have their work plans approved by a research review committee, something he believes does not fully guarantee the humane application of university research.
“The military is the only institution in our society that is specifically intended to cause harm to people,” Higgins argued. “If this research is for the military, [there] is a flag going off about harm.”
The new draft of McGill’s Regulations on Research Policy also contains a revised preamble that does not address research that might result in inflicting harm.
In a 2007 letter to University of Western Ontario Vice President (Research and International Relations) Ted Hewitt, McGill Vice Principal (Research and International Relations) Denis Therien asserted that it is difficult to trace direct harm to research and explained his opinion that military research can often benefit society. He also indicated his belief that academic freedom must be respected when regulating research.
“Academic freedom demands that, so long as all existing review criteria are met, we uphold our faculty members’ right to pursue research as they see fit and that restrictions based upon whether or not some may find particular avenues of research objectionable should be resisted,” Therien wrote.
In the letter, Therien also stated his opposition to any Canadian body that might provide guidelines for the approval of military research.
In the meantime, Higgins is hoping for increased student interest in McGill’s military research policies.
“For students in general, a research conduct policy on its own seems pretty bland, but when it’s put in the context of military research…then it’s an issue for people.”
Therien was not available for comment on McGill’s research policy.