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McGill to review research conduct regulations amid military research controversy

University criticized for partnerships with defence contractors, lack of transparency

Updated August 7, 2014.

Last week, Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) VP University Affairs Claire Stewart-Kanigan released a statement announcing that McGill’s Regulation on the Conduct of Research will undergo review in the 2014-15 academic year. This information was released alongside a callout for reactions to an open letter written by an anonymous McGill Engineering student to Hannah Michalska – a professor at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering – alleging that military applications of Michalska’s research were contributing to the recent violence in Gaza. The impending review was first announced by Principal Suzanne Fortier during a Board of Governors meeting on April 29.

Stewart-Kanigan prompted students to send their thoughts on the letter to Michalska; Rose Goldstein, McGill’s vice-principal of research and international relations; Wagdi Habashi, the director of the Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) Laboratory; and Inna Sharf, leader of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles research group. These researchers have all been criticized by Demilitarize McGill – a campus group that opposes military research at the university – for the alleged military applications of their research.

Michalska has, so far, received a few responses from students; Goldstein and Sharf have received none.

Habashi could not be reached for comment.

“The [U]niversity’s commitment to seeking out private funding to sustain its grossly overinflated budget means it will be near impossible to implement any real constraints on research that draws in money even if it destroys lives.”

– Mona Luxion
Demilitarize McGill member

Last reviewed in 2010, the Regulation is a year late for its scheduled triennial update. The review, to be led by Goldstein, will be conducted by an eight-person committee, which will include Stewart-Kanigan as the SSMU representative, one Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) representative, three academic staff to be chosen by a Senate nominating committee, and three representatives appointed respectively by the Provost, the Vice-Principal (Research and International Relations), and the Dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies.

The full committee membership will be made public in September after it is approved by Senate.

Stewart-Kanigan told The Daily that it is important for students to voice their opinions to committee representatives during the review process. “I’ll be pushing from inside of the committee to hold a genuine consultation process and to have a lot of open sessions for students to voice their concerns,” she said. “It makes student representatives a much stronger part of a committee if they can bring forward concrete student testimony that indicates a particular position or a particular opinion.”

Mona Luxion, a member of Demilitarize McGill and former Daily columnist, was not optimistic about the impact of the impending review. “[M]ilitary research and collaboration is embedded in McGill’s working model,” Luxion told The Daily in an email. “The [U]niversity’s commitment to seeking out private funding to sustain its grossly overinflated budget means it will be near impossible to implement any real constraints on research that draws in money even if it destroys lives.”

Stewart-Kanigan emphasized that the University must make more information available to the McGill community if it wants to facilitate meaningful consultation. “The University needs to be upfront about what the research practices look like right now, because a lot of that [information] is withheld from students,” she said.

In March, the University released heavily redacted documents – requested by Demilitarize McGill under the Access to Information Act – that revealed a connection between McGill and military manufacturer Lockheed Martin via the CFD Laboratory, and linked campus drone research to the Canadian Department of National Defence. The University had been fighting the requests in court for a year, but settled the suit in January.

The anonymous student’s letter, published in July and referenced in Stewart-Kanigan’s announcement, argues that Section 2.01 of Quebec’s Code of ethics of engineers requires researchers to take responsibility for the applications of their research. The Code states that “the engineer must […] take into account the consequences of the performance of his work on the environment and on the life, health and property of every person.”

Michalska questioned some of the anonymous student’s assertions in an email to The Daily. “I do wish the author had contacted me before writing her post. […] I do not object to people holding opinions different than my own, but what is most important is that we examine these complex issues as evenly and dispassionately as possible, so that we can avoid exaggerations and extrapolations that don’t hold up once the facts are known.”

In an email to The Daily, Sharf defended her own research as well as Michalska’s. “Researchers in universities do a wide range of work with [a] multitude of possible applications. Anyone’s work, being published in open literature, can be put to a variety of means.” Sharf continued, “It is people who begin wars, not weapons nor the underlying technologies.”

Goldstein told The Daily that, because research becomes publicly available, it can be difficult to predict how it will be used. However, she emphasized that concerns over research applications are being heard. “[The anonymous student’s] piece and other issues that have been raised are issues that we take seriously. We are going to be looking at these topics in the review process.”

Luxion maintained that researchers do hold some responsibility for the applications of their work. “[W]hen research is done for the military or in partnership with defense [sic] contractors, it’s sticking one’s head in the sand to claim ignorance about the end use of that work,” they wrote.