Fate of military research regulations still up in the air

Vicky Tobianah
The McGill Daily September 14, 2009

McGill University’s research policy will be updated this fall, a move that has student activists concerned about ethical regulation of future military research on campus. Initially set to appear before Senate in May 2009, review of the new research policy was postponed.

Although draft polices are not made publicly available until after the Senate review, the most recent research policy draft distributed to SSMU for consultation has removed the clauses that pertain to the review of military research.

The existing Regulations on Research Policy was updated in 1988 in response to a six-day student protest against the development of fuel-air explosive research conducted by McGill professors, who had received grants from the U.S. Air Force and the Canadian Department of Defense.

Recent controversy surrounds research on thermobaric weapons – another type of explosive energy weapon. As recently as 2002, David Frost, professor of Mechanical Engineering at McGill, published research aimed at making these explosives more “effective.” Though not directly funded by the military, the work was done in collaboration with military researchers.

Alexandre Vidal is a U3 Environment student and representative of Demilitarize McGill, a student group that describes themselves as “opposed to research contributing to the development of thermobaric weapons by the U.S. military.” He admits that at this point, the new policy could go either way.

“This could erase the clauses about military research policies at McGill, or it could mean that they will be improved to ensure public transparency and ethical evaluation of research that is funded by, or done in collaboration with, researchers from military agencies,” Vidal said.

Vidal did, however, express concern with the most recent policy draft, which has no references to harmful research in its preamble.

“This is why we proposed amendments to the new research policy,” Vidal said.

The man in charge of the review, Associate Provost of Policies and Procedures William Foster, did not comment on the draft policies, suggesting instead that questions regarding the policy be directed to those groups involved in the consultation process.

Foster did, however, meet with Demilitarize McGill to hear their concerns about the draft. Vidal said, “[Foster] was open to consider any concern that Demilitarize McGill may have, and said that he will forward our proposed amendments to the Research Policy Committee.”

SSMU is working closely with Demilitarize McGill to ensure students’ concerns are properly represented. Rebecca Dooley, SSMU VP University Affairs, and the 12 other undergraduate student senators will be voicing any student concerns on the floor of the Senate.

Since the policy is still under consultation and has yet to be presented to the Senate, “[It is] difficult to say whether major concern is necessary,” Dooley said. She added that as with any policy changes at McGill, the new policy will be inspected closely.

“There is ample opportunity for students to voice any concerns they may have,” Dooley said.

Demilitarize McGill will continue to seek ethical research on campus and is working with members of the administration who are responsible for the decision-making.

Why does the preamble talk about harmful consequences of research, but this isn’t mentioned again in the body of the policy?

The preable states that members of the university community are best positioned through special knowledge  to be aware of…the
consequences of [their research and scholarly activity]. Some faculty have reasonably expressed the feeling that it is too burdensome for researchers to be aware of all possible consequences of their research. Students made a proposal that this be made more manageable by specifying that researchers be aware of the possible applications of their research by sponsors. Why was this not included?

Why was clause 10 removed from the old policy. What “harm” was it doing there?

Heather Munroe-Blum said “quote” in the Daily in response to student concerns about harmful research. How is it expected that “this” will happen if there is no mention of “the review harmful research” in the proposed policy?

In background for today’s memorandum on the Policy on the Conduct of Research it was acknowledged that “quote”. This statement is misleading because most of the comments from students and interest groups pertain to the draft clause 12, which dealt with harmful applications of research in general, and not military research. Why was section 12 from the draft policy removed from the final policy proposal, thereby removing any mention of harmful applications of research from the body of the policy?

[We saw a draft in February that had a clause (12) on harmful applications, but doesn’t specifically mention military research.
Why has it been completely removed from the proposed policy? ]

Why has there been a completely new clause (7) included to allow sponsors of research to have anonymity? What are the benefits of such a clause?

Students made a proposal for anonymity to be only possible for non-governmental agencies. Why was this proposal rejected, and consequently under what circumstances would it be appropriate for anonymous government sponsorship of university research?

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