Research with potentially harmful applications will see few regulatory restrictions at McGill, following a decision made at Senate on March 24. This year, McGill has seen a long and arduous debate over its newly passed Regulations on Conduct of Research policy, which has ultimately omitted the ethical regulations sought by the campus group Demilitarize McGill.
The debate over the new policy has focused mainly on the removal of regulations on research funded by the military, and the need for a reporting system established within the policy to monitor any research that is funded by non-peer-reviewed sources, as well as research with potentially harmful applications.
“Just as we have ethical reviews of research on human subjects…I think that we can ask those kinds of questions [for any research],” said law professor and Senator, Richard Janda. “Particularly, I believe we should ask those kinds of questions when the sources of money that are being given for research are not peer-reviewed granting councils.”
Students from Demilitarize McGill started working with the administration in 2008 to tighten regulations on military-funded research that were in the old policy, and to extend those regulations to any research that could have potentially harmful applications.
In February 2009, Associate Provost (Policies and Procedures) William Foster presented a draft of the new research policy to Demilitarize McGill and the then SSMU VP (University Affairs) Nadya Wilkinson. The draft contained a new section that required researchers to obtain approval from the VP (Research and International Relations) to undertake research which has significant potential for direct harmful applications or adverse effects.
This section was removed from the new policy at its first reading in November, however, along with some of the policy’s pre-existing regulations.
After the November Senate meeting, Demilitarize McGill submitted another proposal of amendments, but they were not included or addressed in the second reading in February.
The policy was finally reviewed by the Academic Policy Committee, which was deeply divided on the issue and ultimately struck the regulations on research with military purposes or any potentially harmful applications.
The document went to a vote in Senate in March, where it passed almost unanimously.
Throughout the entire debate, the administration was reluctant to consider any regulatory obligation to disclose harmful applications that could stem from research. The administration reiterated at each meeting, in and outside the Senate, that there was an urgency to push this policy forward as is.
“The policy is ready to be adopted right now, and every month that goes by without having a document like this is dangerous [and] is not good for the University. We need this to come in force as soon as possible,” Vice-Principal (Research and International Relations) Denis Thérien said at the February Senate meeting.
The administration consistently argued that McGill must stay in line with other large research universities in Canada, which do not have such policies in place. Many researchers – students and professors alike – were concerned that these policies would add an unnecessary burden on researchers, and that it would be impossible for researchers to identify all possible applications of their research once it is in the public domain.
“We’ve been hearing that it’s too cumbersome,” said Janda on a CKUT live broadcast in early March, “but the fact is our social responsibilities require us to think about things that are not entirely certain. All that we’re asking researchers to do is think about the problem, report about it, and have the University keep track of this…. Seems to me it’s entirely consistent with the role of the University.”
Nikki Bozinoff, member of Demilitarize McGill and former editor at The Daily, said that she was not shocked by the decision made by Senate in March.
“Demilitarize McGill has always maintained that ethical review of research with harmful applications will become the norm one day. The question here is whether McGill wanted to lead that movement, and it’s clear that they weren’t up to the task,” said Bozinoff. “We urge students to engage in creative direct action to oppose harmful research.”
Demilatirize McGill is currently undertaking a project to archive potentially harmful research done at McGill, including research conducted during the ’80s, when weapons research at McGill was first exposed by a group of students and professors.