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McGill profs signing military research contracts via private companies

Demilitarize McGill denounces lack of transparency

Correction appended February 16, 2015.

McGill mechanical engineering professors David Frost and Andrew Higgins and research associate Samuel Goroshin have signed research contracts with Canada’s Department of National Defence (DND) through companies whose primary shareholders are Frost and Goroshin, documents released on February 11 by campus group Demilitarize McGill have shown.

According to a contract obtained by Demilitarize McGill through an access to information (ATI) request, DND commissioned research titled “Reactivity Study for Gasless Systems” from ZND Inc., a company whose primary shareholder is Frost.

Among other things, ZND Inc. was tasked with “report[ing] on […] experiments on detonation and combustion of heterogenous explosive mixtures to understand and improve the overall performance of heterogenous explosive mixtures.”

Frost, Higgins, and Goroshin collaborated on the research in question, which was valued at over $150,000 and took place in 2009. McGill graduate students also participated in the research, according to Higgins.

“People are free to look at the work we do, and if they think it isn’t appropriate work, they’re free to voice that concern.”

“The documents show that at least three McGill professors […] have been using […] companies in order to sign explosives research contracts with the Canadian military, and do so under reduced scrutiny,” said Kevin Paul, an organizer with Demilitarize McGill, in an interview with The Daily.

Speaking to The Daily, Higgins explained that “most of the work” was done off campus, in the Canadian Explosives Research Laboratory (CERL) in Ottawa. Frost cited reasons of convenience for going through the private company instead of the University.

“It seemed to make sense to do it off campus, and the reason is […] it’s more convenient to rent an off-site facility, rent a technician’s time […] and do these tests intensively over a short period of time,” said Frost.

“We don’t have these facilities [on campus], and so we go to a government testing lab in Ottawa. […] There’s no necessity to go through a McGill research agreement […] and so we go through a private company, which is more convenient,” he continued.

“It’s done completely outside McGill, it’s done by a private company – there’s no reason why it has to go through a review process,” added Higgins.

Goroshin also noted that “the biggest reason [why] sometimes we don’t go through McGill” is that “McGill is too greedy – they take 65 per cent overhead.”

The professors emphasized the “openness” of their research. Frost noted that the professors published some of their findings in journals such as the Journal of Applied Physics after the research was completed.

“People are free to look at the work we do, and if they think it isn’t appropriate work, they’re free to voice that concern,” said Higgins.

For Paul, however, the use of private companies has the effect of hiding the research from public scrutiny.

“Using the companies is also having the effect, today, of making it much harder to find out about this research,” Paul said. “Access to information requests to McGill turned up nothing about these contracts, and McGill denied holding any information on ZND Inc..”

Paul further noted that the research report was not available on the defence research report database maintained by Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC), which is DND’s research agency. Frost said that the publication of the report on the database was DRDC’s decision, and that he had no control over it.

Paul also expressed skepticism about the non-involvement of McGill resources in the research. “It simply isn’t credible that this research took place fully outside McGill and without the support of McGill resources,” he said, noting that the contract indicates that the CERL blast chamber was only rented for an estimated four days.

The research also involved electron microscopy and laboratory analysis, and it is unclear where those parts of the research took place. Both Frost and Higgins indicated that they did not remember where the microscopy was conducted, but Frost acknowledged that it could have been done at McGill.

“McGill has general testing facilities,” said Goroshin. “If we need to do electron microscopy and so on, we pay. We pay this on [a] commercial basis.”
According to Frost, Goroshin was the one responsible for subcontracting the microscopy for the research in question.

Military applications

The Shock Wave Physics Group – which includes Frost, Higgins, and Goroshin – has been a frequent target of Demilitarize McGill’s criticism for the military funding and alleged military applications of its research.

“The Shock Wave Physics Group should be shut down,” said Paul. “It’s research that exists primarily to help the military […] and it shouldn’t exist.”

Although each of the professors emphasized that their research was “fundamental science” and not “weapons development,” Higgins acknowledged its potential military applications.

“We had interest from [DND] to look at [gasless combustion] for different applications,” said Higgins. “One is you can use this gasless combustion to make different materials, you can make very hard ceramics out of this that might be of interest, for example, for making a better armour.”

“Gasless combustion could be used to maybe make better ceramic armour, it’s used in propellants, so they [DND] have also an interest in fundamental understanding of metal combustion,” added Higgins.

In 2009, when the research was conducted, McGill research regulations included a clause requiring applicants for grants whose source is a military agency to disclose the “direct harmful consequences” of their research. Frost and Higgins indicated that the clause never prevented them from undertaking research at McGill before it was struck down in 2010.

“When that clause was in effect […] I would write an additional statement explaining the nature of the work and that then was approved,” said Higgins. “It was never rejected, [but] it did put in some significant delays.”

McGill’s research regulations are currently under review by a committee that includes two student representatives, but Paul was not optimistic about the process.

“There is no policy solution to military research on campus,” said Paul. “Students can and should put pressure on the University through other means.”

A previous version of this article stated that Samuel Goroshin was a McGill professor. In fact, he is a research associate. The Daily regrets the error.