Keep academia out of the war room

By The McGill Daily Editorial Board
Published: Nov 5, 2009

The new research policy put forward at Senate yesterday not only fails to address the harmful intent and effects of military research taking place at the University, but also removes 20-year-old mechanisms that partially dealt with such problems. The new rules do not require transparent reporting of research and they also allow anonymous research sponsorship. It is unacceptable and disturbing that McGill’s policy allows research that both contributes to the development of weaponry and increases such weapons’ lethality. The administration’s dubious attempts to deflect student demands regarding transparent and ethical research are equally unsettling.

The University has long been involved with developing and improving fuel air explosives and thermobaric weapons. This technology was first used in the Vietnam War, and has more recently been employed in Afghanistan and Iraq. These weapons are designed to kill people in enclosed spaces. They create a large amount of shockwave pressure and consume all oxygen in an area, providing an ideal killing mechanism for “soft targets” in protected spots. In lay terms, these weapons kill human beings hiding in bunkers, in tunnels, in the brush, in their homes. They are specifically designed to kill and injure people in a more effectively brutal manner than conventional explosives.

In the sixties, McGill’s Department of Mechanical Engineering developed test projectiles as part of the High Altitude Research Program, a project of the U.S. Air Force and the Canadian Department of Defence. In the seventies and eighties, Roman Knystautas and John H. Lee, professors in the department, continued research in explosives conducted for and funded by the U.S. Air Force. Due to student activism, the University amended its research policy in 1988 to mandate transparency when it comes to research funded by military agencies, a change it is now trying to revoke.

The 1988 policy failed to account for research projects being done in direct collaboration with military researchers. Over the past decade, work in direct collaboration with researchers from the U.S. and Canadian militaries to improve weapons technology has continued. For instance, a presentation by David Frost (of the Department of Mechanical Engineering) and military researchers from Defence Research and Development Canada was referenced by the U.S. Air Force in a contract soliciting research intended to “increase lethality by focusing more of the available energy on target.”

U.S. military spending exceeds the reported amount of money spent by the next 45 countries combined, and in helping the American war machine develop its technology, McGill is perpetuating the power imbalances preserved by military domination. We urge the University to take a critical look not only at the violent effects of military research, but also at its own role in maintaining global inequalities through its support of the U.S. military.

While the current policy fails to address both of the aforementioned concerns, the University’s proposed changes stand to limit accountability – both by removing the sections requiring transparent reporting on all research receiving military funding, and by adding a section that permits research sponsors to remain anonymous. These changes will allow McGill to cash in on big cheques from the U.S. military and private defence corporations that have been limited since the policy changes in the eighties. In the amended policy, the only mention of the word “harm” outside the preamble is in the context of “harm” to the University’s reputation. This disregard for human life, coupled with excessive interest in financial gain and public recognition, is disgusting. What’s even more ironic is University policy discourages students from travelling to “unstable” regions – areas whose instability is caused by the very weapons researched here at McGill.

In drafting this new policy, McGill has almost entirely ignored student recommendations. Associate Provost (Policies & Procedures) William Foster has failed to fulfill his promise to keep SSMU Vice-President (University Affairs) Rebecca Dooley informed of revisions before the policy went to Senate. Though Foster has since apologized, saying that the last-minute changes were requested by a higher-up in the administration, he has outright refused requests from individual students and the student group Demilitarize McGill to see updated drafts of the policy.

The administration has made it as difficult as possible for students to contribute to this discussion. Demilitarize McGill has been working on a proposal to improve the policy. However, its new form – in which the sections that the student group wanted to strengthen were entirely excised – was only released a week before it would be brought to Senate. Moreover, the University attempted to have this review last May – at a time when most students and the student press would not be present on campus.

We demand that the administration take seriously students’ calls for ethical and transparent research, and stop compromising our academic institution’s ethics for big bucks. The administration must re-instate the sections in the policy that mandate transparency when research is funded by military agencies, and further needs to create a review committee that would approve or disapprove of any research that will do violence to human beings. We urge all of our readers to ask your senators and your professors to challenge this shameful policy at Senate. Or, better yet, you could go there and challenge it yourself. The 1988 policy changes were made only after students protested for six days – it will probably take at least this much to get it changed again.

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2 comments on “Keep academia out of the war room
  1. Francois Jetté says:

    You guys misrepresent some information in order to scare people. Let me bring in some clarifications here…

    Gerald Bull’s HARP project aimed to provide a cheaper alternative to rockets for sending satellites into space. At that time the only funding for rockets and other types of launchers came from the military. For a while Bull’s launcher showed as much promise as the rocket. In order to sell the NASA “adventure” and his rockets to the people, Werner Von Braun (former Nazi) “concealed” the military aspect of rockets as he focussed on putting humans on them. Bull unfortunately couldn’t put people in his launcher. So the Nazi guy’s war weapon got all the funding and the Canadian guy’s satellite-launching project was eventually dissolved because it couldn’t be sold as a nice non-military effort to put people in space… Bull then looked for funding elsewhere to continue his work and eventually got assassinated! It’s too bad, because now we use expensive rockets to launch satellites instead of HARP-style launchers. That’s the price we paid for being duped back in the ’60’s.

    In the ’70’s and ’80’s, Knystautas and Lee worked on gas-phase detonations. What they discovered greatly helped understand the conditions in which detonations will propagate and those in which they will fail. As was the case for Gerald Bull, limited funding outside the military was available. They had to do most of what they did with very little money. The “infamous” project they worked on was linked to the development a type of fuel-air explosive that could rapidly be deployed over a mine field to detonate the mines and create a safe passage for vehicles to pass. This technology could be used during a war to permit military vehicles to pass, or after a war to make the roads safe again. Because fuel-air explosives were thought to be evil weapons, activists made a big deal of that contract. There are very few technologies out there today to deal with mines, which are a very big problem in many countries. Because McGill’s involvement in developing technologies used in demining received funding from the military, it was ended for good thanks to the fuss that surrounded it.

    I guess what I’m trying to say here is make sure you know what you protest about before you protest. You could be serving the interest of a Nazi trying to sell his weapon by presenting it as a human transport vehicle, or you could be hindering demining efforts…

  2. […] all research taking place at McGill. The policy up for approval has been the subject of extensive criticism and involves the complete removal of a section requiring transparent reporting on research […]

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