Skip to content

Senate debates harmful research

Motion fails requiring disclosure of harmful impacts

Senate voted down an amendment to McGill’s regulation on the conduct of research policy last Wednesday night that would mandate researchers to reflect on the potential harmful impacts of their work.

The amendment was moved from the floor by Faculty of Law professor Robert Janda. Janda proposed that the wording of the policy’s section on hazardous research be changed to account for research with potential harmful applications, in addition to research activities that pose “significant recognizable risk of physical injury to persons or property involving hazardous experiments or materials.”

“This is the kind of thing that institutions take on to increase the transparency around the externalities they generate with public funding,” Janda said.

The amendment would have mandated researchers to consider any potential harmful applications upon receipt of a research grant or contract and report them to their chair or dean. “We have a solemn obligation stated in the preamble to the [conduct of research policy] to remain aware of the potential consequences of our research,” Janda said. “This is not the creation of an academic offense.”

Though Janda said the amendment was conceived with military research in mind, military research was not explicitly mentioned anywhere in the proposed amendment.

Ellen Aitken, dean of the Faculty of Religious Studies, said that she was voting against Janda’s motion because, though she sympathized with its intent, its phrasing was ambiguous enough that it could be applied to almost anything.

“Everything we do causes potential harm,” Aitken said. “Everything we do would have to be registered in this process.”

Several other senators expressed sympathy for the spirit of the motion coupled with concerns over its practical implications, as well as discomfort with combining larger ethical concerns with a section of the policy primarily concerning workplace safety. Dean of Science Martin Grant characterized the amendment as “mixing up safety goggles with potentially dangerous ideas.” Provost Anthony Masi said that the proposed amendment was “so imprecise in its wording so as to create real problems in the administration.”

SSMU VP (University Affairs) Rebecca Dooley voiced her support for the amendment. “I think it produces a moment for reflection by Senate,” she said. “Our social responsibility should be a topic of equal priority with our academic responsibility.”

Law Senator Faizel Gulamhussein raised the question, “Where else does the VP see the preamble having teeth in legislation?” To objections that other universities don’t have such a policy, he replied, “We are no other university. We’re McGill University and we should be leading.”

Arts senator Sarah Woolf proposed that the former military research clause be reinserted after Janda’s amendment was voted down by a great majority.

Her suggestion followed Senator Darin Barney’s remark that he would reluctantly vote against the proposed amendment given the “pathological outcomes” other senators were concerned it would produce. Barney pointed to the previous military research clause, stating that it was “probably a more elegant and relevant way” to address these concerns. “It’s not a matter of research funded by [the military] being necessarily harmful, but more likely to have direct harm than research funded by SHRQ, for instance.”

Woolf said that the discussion made clear to her that the original clause, with its more precise wording, was most likely a preferable solution. “We hadn’t actually had a reason the clause was removed in the first place. It has the teeth and the action guidelines that were so useful over the last 20 years.”

The motion to reintroduce the original clause on military research was defeated with 18 for, 38 against.

Masi and Principal Heather Monroe Blum expressed concern over discussing the proposed amendment at length, as this was the third time that the policy had been discussed at Senate.

“That’s not a reason to expedite the process,” Woolf told The Daily. “The fact that it’s the third time and we’re still having this conversation means people are still not satisfied.”

An abridged version of this story appeared in print on March 29.