The world lives, and dies, by inventions spurred by military need, and funded by Defence Department budgets.
So should universities shun money from military sources, or welcome it? And if they court it, should there be strings attached — such as mandatory disclosure of the potentially harmful applications of military-funded research?
This week, McGill University’s senate will be asked to approve revamped research ethics guidelines which expunge a 22-year-old clause which required researchers accepting money from military sources to indicate whether the research would have “direct harmful consequences.”
McGill principal Heather Munroe-Blum and Denis Therien, vice-principal for research and international relations, said the move brings McGill in line with other research-intensive universities in Canada and the United States, most of which don’t have language or criteria which specifically targets money from military sources.
“It is the wrong equation to say that military funded equals harmful and non-military funded is OK,” Therien told the senate when the topic was discussed in November.
Munroe-Blum argued the existing policy “provided a false sense of reassurance on something that has to be, at the end of the day, (a matter of) good judgment and good process.”
But members of the student-led group, Demilitarize McGill, say McGill is trying to cloud the issues surrounding military — and particularly, weapons — research, by claiming the university is simply doing what everyone else does.
“You can use that argument to justify anything,” said Cleve Higgins, one of the group’s organizers. “But you shouldn’t let that influence you if you believe something is right.”
“We’re not really feeling very positive about what the result will be,” said Nikki Bozinoff, who graduated from McGill last spring. She believes that instead of following the pack, her alma mater should take the lead by demanding transparency to ensure research conducted there is a force for good — or at least, sets out to be.
McGill amended its research policy in 1988 after concerns arising from contracts awarded to McGill professors by the U.S. military to research fuel-air explosives.
“These sections related to military research are unique in Canada and came about as a result of a history of student activism,” said Higgins. “McGill research continues to contribute to the development of weapons for the U.S. and Canadian military forces. The policy to regulate this research needs to be strengthened, not removed.”
After student and faculty members challenged the proposed policy last fall, McGill tinkered with the language of the proposed policy. The revised version calls upon researchers “to balance the potential benefits against the possibility of harmful applications.”
A clause was dropped which would have allowed for anonymous funding of research, a measure one critic euphemistically described as “problematic.”
But Bozinoff and Higgins say no progress has been made on the key issue of “harmful” research, whether that money comes from military sources, Big Pharma or multinational corporations. “There is nothing in the policy that deals with harmfulness,” said Higgins.
He recognizes the risk of clamping down so hard that funding dries up for research that has broad applications for both military and peaceful purposes.
“Those are the tricky ethical questions,” he said. “It’s true that any research can potentially be damaging. Nothing is 100 per cent. That’s why we have focused on funding for research on explosives, where the application is pretty obviously harmful.”