On October 16, the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) held an open forum on McGill research regulations surrounding weapons development on campus.
The forum, led by SSMU VP University Affairs Claire Stewart-Kanigan, took place as McGill begins a triennial review of its research conduct regulations, which is due to be completed by the end of this academic year. Stewart-Kanigan organized the event to gather student feedback to bring to the review committee, where she is one of two student representatives out of eight members in total.
The question of whether and how the policy should be updated to impose restrictions on research with military purposes was central to the discussion.
“One of the issues that is going to be coming up [during the review] is the fact that the research regulation used to have a component that required any research that was funded by the military to disclose whether the research was for something that had directly violent purposes – because the military can fund flood relief technology, but can also fund missile development,” said Stewart-Kanigan.
Prior to 2010, McGill’s regulation on the conduct of research included a provision that required applicants for contracts or grants whose source is a government military agency to indicate on the approval form “whether this research has direct harmful consequences.”
The provision was introduced in 1988, largely prompted by a three-day occupation of McGill’s Vice-Principal (Research)’s office by seven McGill students. However, when the regulation was reviewed in 2010, the provision was removed.
“In my understanding, it was removed because the University stated that it wasn’t the norm amongst other Canadian universities to have something that specifically referenced military funding. They said it was unusual,” said Stewart-Kanigan.
“I would say that that’s total shit,” said SSMU VP Finance and Operations Kathleen Bradley in reference to the unusual nature of the provision being used as a reason to remove it. “Your justification for doing something should never be because everybody else does it. That’s not a very sound argument.”
The majority of those present at the forum expressed strong opposition to current procedures in place, both with regards to the fact that weapons development takes place at McGill, and to the University’s lack of transparency on the matter. In 2013, the University asked the Commission d’accès à l’information to grant it the power to deny access to information (ATI) requests, a demand that was challenged by student groups. Only after a year and a half was the suit settled and were the requested documents released, albeit heavily redacted.
“I don’t think it’s okay that the university is conducting this kind of research, and keeping it behind closed doors,” Arts Senator Kareem Ibrahim, who was present at the event, told The Daily.
“I think it’s shitty that our world is in a state where we use military activity to resolve issues, and that a major university contributes to that, is, in my opinion, really detrimental to our community,” Ibrahim continued.
Attendees discussed the value of academic freedom as an argument against regulation of military research. Kevin Paul – a member of Demilitarize McGill, a group that fights against military research at the university – argued that, because the companies funding the research influence its direction, academic freedom cannot be invoked to justify it.
“The situation now with military research at McGill is not one in which academic freedom prevails,” said Paul. “It’s long-term relationships [that] McGill [has] with defence contractors and military research agencies that made it so that the research options and priorities are shaped by the needs of those companies.”
An Engineering student who attended the event offered a different take on the matter.
“If you want to be a researcher in engineering, you have to get funding – engineering research projects aren’t cheap, and so oftentimes academic freedom also means that you need the ability to get funding where funding is available,” he said. “So if you have to go through red tape, to study flow over wings [for example], that becomes incredibly problematic for research grants for engineering.”
Stewart-Kanigan raised the possibility that McGill’s role could be to bridge between researchers’ interests and ethical ways to explore them.
“What the University’s role can be is [to be] more of a leader in directing professors and people interested in that type of research to more socially responsible measures,” she said.
Reactions to the forum
“There certainly was a strong sense that stricter regulations on military research should exist at McGill, [that] the University should take a stronger stance in opposition to facilitating research whose express purpose is to affect violence on other peoples,” Stewart-Kanigan said.
“I do understand that the composition of the forum was not representative from a faculty perspective – I would like to make more efforts to specifically engage students who would be more directly affected by an increase in regulations or an alteration of regulations pertaining to military research [such as those in physics and engineering].”
Erin, a U2 History student, expressed similar concerns about the representation of the student body.
“I would’ve liked to see students from some of the more implicated faculties, such as Engineering. I think sometimes those students maybe don’t feel welcome in these kinds of discussions, or maybe they feel kind of written-off already. But I think it was very productive and it was great to hear some thoughts from some of those students, and one particular student in Engineering. So I would’ve liked to see a broader discussion with a much more equal representation [of both sides],” he told The Daily.
Cadence O’Neal, an organizer with Demilitarize McGill, spoke favourably of the event, but expressed reservations over the outcome of the forum and about the review in general.
“I’m glad [the forum] happened – it’s really important that we’re acknowledging this conversation,” O’Neal said in an interview with The Daily. “But looking at the history of this kind of activism on campus I’ve seen that McGill a) isn’t actually sticking to its own policies that it already has in place, and b) will probably not actually improve the current policies adequately anyway, so for me […] I don’t feel it’s something I’m putting a lot of hope into.”
The issue will be further discussed at SSMU’s upcoming General Assembly on October 22, as a motion regarding the matter is on the agenda.
“I look forward to seeing how these conversations play out at the General Assembly when the [issue] of military research is brought up there,” said Stewart-Kanigan.