Two weeks ago, Demilitarize McGill publicized a psychology study conducted in 2012 on eighty Somali Canadians by researchers from McGill and Carleton University, and funded by the Canadian military. In a serious breach of the ethical requirements for informed consent, researchers failed to inform the participants at any point that the study had been commissioned by the military and designed to investigate the participants’ propensity to support terrorist groups. The fact that this information had to be uncovered by a student group speaks to a lack of transparency and accountability at McGill, and to a broader institutionalized culture of unethical research practices.
Indeed, the University’s history is deeply tainted with unethical research. In the 1950s, a McGill psychiatrist conducted a series of experiments in sensory deprivation, drug use, and electroshock therapy on patients as part of the MK-ULTRA project, which was partially funded by the CIA and the Canadian government. In the 1960s and 1970s, the asbestos industry funded Professor John Corbett McDonald’s research on the health effects of asbestos in which he used a faulty technique, destroyed a part of his data, and concluded that chrysotile asbestos was essentially innocuous. Even though no other researcher has confirmed his findings, the research continues to be used today, especially in countries in the global south. In the 1980s, students began uncovering weapons research at McGill, which continues to this day the development of drones and thermobaric explosives.
The University has actively resisted efforts to hold its researchers accountable and reform its policies. Pressed to investigate the asbestos research in 2012, McGill conducted an internal review that exonerated McDonald, and held a conference on asbestos where criticism was heard, but no action was taken. McGill also approved limitations on military-funded research in 1988 under heavy pressure from students, but they were applied only sparsely, before being completely abolished in 2010. As such, it has proven impossible to institutionalize a culture of accountability at McGill, as its researchers have no scruples with disregarding even official McGill policies. The study on Somali Canadians merely continues the trend.
As the University reviews its research conduct regulation this year, a strengthening of the policy to account for harmful consequences of research, as well as better oversight in its application, is imperative. However, policy reform will remain a mere formality if it fails to be accompanied by a shift toward an institutional culture of transparency and accountability in research. It is not the whistleblowers’ responsibility to bring ethical violations to public attention. The University must purposefully act to create a space where unethical research is no longer tolerated.
—The McGill Daily Editorial Board