McGill removes research regulation

Senators critical of McGill’s stance on military research and anonymous funding

By Stephanie Law, published Nov 5, 2009 in the McGill Daily

The proposed addition of an anonymity clause and the removal of regulations on military-funded research in McGill’s new Regulations on Conduct of Research policy sparked debate at the Senate meeting on Wednesday.

In his introduction of the policy to Senate, Denis Thérien, McGill Vice-Principal (Research and International Relations) repudiated recent concerns over the removal of two regulations on military-funded research from the draft of the new policy.

“No university in Canada has an explicit regulation referring to military funding in their policy,” Thérien said.

“I would say that the position of the [Group of 13] universities applies quite a bit here. [Their position is that] it [is a] very dangerous and slippery slope to go down this road…. We propose not to go down that road either,” he said.

The section that was removed from the new policy draft requires that “[a]pplicants for contracts or grants whose source is a government military agency shall indicate on the check list/approval form of the Office of Technology Transfer or the Research Grants Office whether this research has direct harmful consequences.”

Rebecca Dooley, SSMU VP University Affairs (UA), said that the removal of the section on military research may be a step backward for McGill.

“Why were these clauses [not included] in the new policy? It was a reporting process in the old policy,” Dooley said.

In response, Thérien reiterated the need to align McGill with the other Canadian research universities.

“We are just aligning ourselves with whatever other universities are doing,” said Thérien.

Arts Senator Sarah Woolf felt that a reason beyond alignment is needed to justify the new policy draft.

“We can all agree that McGill should and does strive to be a leader among the G13. Removing this clause, I think, is a regressive step, and it doesn’t demonstrate leadership at all. What it does suggest is that we are trying to be as appealing to research funders as the other members of G13 are – at the expense of our ethics. So I would hope that there would be another line of reasoning besides to just keep up with the G13,” Woolf said.

Besides the removal of the section regulating military-funded research, senators expressed concern about the addition of a clause that would allow sponsors to remain anonymous when directly funding research projects, if their requests for anonymity are filed “legitimately and in good faith.”

“[This anonymity clause] is particularly problematic in the context of pharmaceutical research or research directed by and money coming from corporations towad particular purposes,” said Daniel Simeone, president of the Post-Graduate Students’ Society.

“It is a fundamental part of the accountability of a researcher to report the source of funding for a project,” Simeone said.

This sentiment was echoed by at least one other senator during the session, but there appeared to be consensus at Senate that there were no good examples available for requiring this clause.

When asked whether other G13 universities have similar clauses allowing for anonymity of direct sponsors of research, Thérien responded that he was not sure and did not know what other universities have in place regarding anonymity.

Concerns over other sections in the proposed research policy besides those on military research and anonymity were also raised in the meeting, including questions on what the proper definition of “hazardous research” is, and why a proper definition was not provided in the policy.

Reactions to the Senate meeting

Many senators felt that the discussion regarding the new research policy was very fruitful, and are hopeful that when making revisions to the policy, the Research Policy Committee will consider the senators’ comments and suggestions carefully. Simeone, however, expressed skepticism that the administration understands the importance of military research regulations the way many student senators do.

“I am confident the concerns considering anonymous funding of research will be taken into consideration. It’s not clear to me at present that the issue of military research is understood by the administration to be the pressing concern that [it] is believed to be by student groups. They don’t think it’s important,” Simeone said.

Senator Richard Janda, a professor in the Faculty of Law, believes it is important to have a policy mechanism in place that would monitor the harmful applications and consequences of all research – not just research funded by military agencies.

“If we single out military, then we are implicitly saying that all other sources of funding are fine, that we don’t have to look at them. I think that the reality is that we do need triggers in place. We should ask hard questions when we see money is coming in from sources that are not the classical peer-reviewed sources of money,” Janda said.

Associate Provost (Policies & Procedures) William Foster said that the comments and discussion at Senate were appreciated, and would be considered while writing the draft to be discussed when Senate reconvenes in December.

Drastic changes

In February 2009, a draft of the new research policy was provided by Foster to Demilitarize McGill and the SSMU VP UA. The draft contained a new section on harmful research. This clause required researchers to obtain approval from the VP (Research and International Relations) to undertake research which has significant potential of direct harmful applications or adverse effects. This section was removed from the new policy.

Student activists were dismayed when they found out that the section was removed and were concerned that their suggestions had been ignored.

“That disregard of student input and complete removal of the military research policies fits in with the pattern with the administration’s position on military research policy as we’ve seen in the past,” said Cleve Higgins, community member of Demilitarize McGill and Daily contributor.

Thérien, however, argued that the extra section regulating harmful research was unnecessary, and explained that Principal Heather Munroe-Blum and the vice-principals made the decision together in August.

“It was taken out at the [principal’s meeting with the vice-principals] in August…. I fully support the decision…. I think that it’s written in the preamble that research at McGill is based on the concept of integrity, on freedom of inquiry, of the well- being of the world. These are the principles that are underlying our research. Trying to be bureaucratic never works,” Thérien said.

General dismay

The existing regulations on military-funded research, sections 10 and 11, were first created in 1988.

These amendments were passed following the release of a 250-page report, titled “How to Make a Killing,” by seven McGill students working with political science professor Samuel Noumoff. The report detailed various research projects at McGill that were funded by American and Canadian military agencies.

Noumoff said that when the amendments were first proposed in Senate, there was little opposition.

“There was some disagreement, but there was really not an overwhelming opposition, either from the scientific community or the administration. Everybody realized it was a real problem, and if we’re going to deal with it in an ethical way, then we had to be transparent,” Noumoff said.

Noumoff was shocked by the removal of the two sections on military funding, and disappointed that there are no mechanisms for monitoring harmful research in the new policy.

“I think it’s outrageous. I see no logic and no reason for it. If someone is prepared to engage in research sponsored by the military…they should be prepared to defend it,” Noumoff said.

He continued: “As with any other contract, like a corporate contract, it should be open, transparent, and defensible. The current policy does not show that people should be sensitive to the possibility of negative consequences; there must be a way to monitor that. Military work is more likely to cause these consequences, so it deserves very special consideration.”

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