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Don’t sell our integrity

In a November 23 interview with The Daily, Principal Heather Munroe-Blum shrugged off the fact that her administration is determined to remove sections of McGill’s research policy that require transparent reporting on all research receiving military funding.

“We have so many protocols that govern the ethics of the research that we do, that this would take the onus off of us to review our own research proposals,” she said.

It may shock readers to find, however, that no framework currently exists for ethical review of the harmful applications of research – for example, weapons development associated with thermobaric research, which does not involve humans or animals.

Both Munroe-Blum and Vice-Principal (Research and Innovation) Denis Therien have obscured our request for reporting on harmful applications, through their contention that research receiving military funding should not be singled out.

“It is a wrong equation to say that military-funded is harmful and non-military funding is okay,” said Therien at the Senate meeting on November 4, in which the proposed policy was discussed.

While Demilitarize McGill does feel that military research merits increased scrutiny – it is, after all, one of the only institutions in our society explicitly intended to be harmful to human life – for the purpose of this policy, we are interested in an ethical review process for, or at the very least transparent reporting on, any research with directly harmful applications.

Demilitarize will be the first to point out that McGill’s policy on military-sponsored research had a number of flaws, including the fact that it only applied to researchers receiving direct support from military agencies. If this were the administration’s main concern, however, we would expect that they work with interested stake-holders to strengthen these sections, rather than remove them completely.

It appears, however, that the administration’s main concern lies in remaining attractive to potential investors and competitive with respect to other research-intensive universities. Demilitarize recognizes that McGill’s chronic underfunding is a serious problem, but we demand that the University not cash in our ethics for research dollars.

Our requests, while portrayed by the administration as unnecessarily bureaucratic, are actually in line with existing ethical review processes. We are asking that research with harmful applications be subject to the same sort of ethical review processes required of research involving humans or animals.

In our proposed amendment, we recognize that researchers can never be aware of all the possible applications of their research, and specify the more reasonable expectation that they must be aware of all potentially harmful applications by agencies that support the research. This expectation is based on a section in the policy preamble that states: “individual members of the University community are best positioned, through special knowledge, to be aware of…the consequences of [their research].” Demilitarize McGill is also opposed, for obvious reasons, to the insertion of a section which allows for directed, anonymous research sponsorship.

In her defense of military research at McGill, Munroe-Blum continues to emphasize research on more benign themes such as prosthetics and medicine, while willfully ignoring the numerous examples of military funding and collaboration for projects related to explosives in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Since 2002, professors from the Shock Wave Physics Group, including David Frost and Andrew Higgins, have received funding from the Canadian military, and have worked in collaboration with the U.S. military on these projects. There are multiple pieces of convincing evidence indicating that the research done by professors at McGill is contributing to the development of new thermobaric weapons for use in Afghanistan and Iraq. The principal and the rest of the McGill community have to stop ignoring this situation and confront its ethical implications, and a policy requiring the evaluation of research with potentially harmful applications is a necessary step in this direction.

It is important to highlight that McGill’s policy on research receiving military support, while not perfect, is unique in Canada, and came about due to sustained student opposition to weapons-related research, including a six-day sit-in in administrators’ offices in 1987. The Daily editors were right in pointing out the irony of a policy that prohibits McGill students from travelling to areas deemed dangerous, yet allows research contributing to this very political instability. McGill’s proposed policy is short-sighted, and research with harmful applications currently taking place on campus contributes to the perpetuation of global hierarchies of power and inequity.

It is interesting to note that the first iteration of a global framework on the ethics of human research – the Nuremberg code – did not come about until 1947 and was in response to the horrendously unethical research undertaken by the Nazis during World War II. In Canada, it wasn’t until the seventies that the Medical Research Council of Canada (currently known as CIHR) developed guidelines for research involving human subjects.

It is unsurprising that McGill administrators are weary of a policy that could place restrictions on academic freedom, just as they must have been prior to the widespread adoption of policies requiring ethical review of research involving human subjects. It is clear to members of Demilitarize McGill, however, that research with harmful applications, like weapons research, should not be conducted at publicly funded institutions.

Given its policy precedents, McGill is well-placed to lead the movement for transparent reporting on and ethical evaluation of research with harmful applications. Either that, or we look back on this moment, shrug, and reason that we were acting “in-line with our sister institutions.”

Nikki Bozinoff is a former Daily Science and Technology Editor. She received a 2009 QPIRG McGill Research Stipend to review research policies across Canada. She is currently a community member of Demilitarize McGill: