Commentary | The Alabamizing of research

New research policy is unpracticably monolithic

The Constitution of the State of Alabama is an interesting read. At 357,157 words, this thick book differs from the U.S. and Canadian constitutions in that it’s not just a statement of fundamental principles, but rather an attempt to be a one-stop-shop for all of the state’s laws – much like McGill’s new proposed Regulation on Research Ethics.

To understand exactly how revolutionary this new policy is, one must understand the current structure of McGill’s research policy framework. The current Regulation on Research Policy is like a constitution for the conduct of responsible research at McGill. It lays out a general framework of principles by which all research should be conducted. Details as to how to carry out one’s research such that it conforms to this “constitution” can be found in the accompanying document, the Policy on Research Ethics, which is akin to a set of bylaws that establish practical and logistical guidelines for conducting research.

Under the new regulation, the two documents currently in effect would be replaced by a single new piece of policy that would represent the culmination of McGill’s stance on how to conduct research. It was recently brought to Senate for discussion.

A couple of Senators took the opportunity to draw attention to the absence of a clause on military research and to identify qualms that they had with a clause permitting anonymous funding of research. But a greater amount of time was spent debating infinitesimal logistical details of the policy. Questions of whether military-funded research should be explicitly addressed in the new policy were overshadowed by concerns about how long researchers should retain evidence and whether McGill would pay for data storage space.

These are indeed legitimate concerns, but they pertain to a very different question. Demanding what we consider to be responsible research is different from asking how we should go about doing it. To conflate these questions and provide a singular, overarching policy answer is a bit like trading in both the family minivan and sports car for a Hummer. While it may appear grand and impressive, it’s slow, inefficient, and neglects the importance of having two different vehicles.

By combining the two current research policies, we degrade the status of our “fundamental principles” to that of regulations within any other policy document, on par with ways of acknowledging co-authors in a research thesis. Alternatively, we constitutionalize all aspects of research, requiring major revisions to the document even when the next generation of research storage technology emerges.

Either way, addressing logistical details and postulating fundamental principles of research in the same document doesn’t fulfill the task of clarifying rules and regulations – as this policy is supposedly intended to do. It serves only to forestall effective debate on our ideological research principles by miring discussion in arguments over how long we should retain research data. McGill should work instead to revitalize the current regulations – contained in two separate documents – so that our acceptable procedures for research are consistently in line with a codified expression of our definition of ethical and responsible research.

Alabama’s basic governing document has been through 798 amendments since 1901, and there are several bills on the floor of the Alabama Legislature to rework the state’s constitution so that it’s not as monolithic. If it’s not working for an entire state government, what makes us think it’ll work for McGill?

David Marshall is a U2 Political Science/IDS Student and a Senator (Arts). You can reach him at artsenator@ssmu.mcgill.ca.


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