Is Military Research Different?

McGill U. considers ending requirement that faculty members indicate whether any research supported by the military may have harmful consequences.
February 11, 2010

McGill University is a major player in academic research. One of the Canadian members of the Association of American Universities, the Montreal institution attracts hundreds of millions of dollars in research support each year.

The university also has an unusual distinction that its leaders want to end: a requirement that any professor receiving research support from the military indicate whether the research could have "direct harmful consequences." The measure was added 22 years ago, with the primary fears not about Canada's military but the U.S. military, which supports a variety of research projects. The measure hasn't prevented some professors from doing work with the U.S. military -- although a McGill spokesman said he couldn't quantify how many of these professors have certified that their grants did or did not have harmful consequences.

Senior McGill officials have proposed removing that clause as part of a revision of research policies on a range of issues. In introducing the measure to the McGill Senate, Denis Thérien, the senior research administrator, stressed that professors receiving military funding would be required -- as are all professors -- to abide by the university's and Canada's research ethics requirements, including human subjects reviews, animal research reviews, conflict of interest reviews and bans on secret research. Further, Thérien said that university standards would still call on research to meet "high scientific and ethical standards," and to seek "to increase knowledge in ways that do not harm society."

The Senate discussed the proposal Wednesday as part of continued debate over the idea. A final shift could come next month.

In an interview with student journalists, Heather Munroe-Blum, the principal (presidential equivalent) of McGill, said that "it is inappropriate, in our view, including mine, to say that the sponsor of the research is what dictates the usefulness of the research. In fact, our research is there to -- you know, we're a public university -- contribute to knowledge and the positive applied benefit of that knowledge."

Munroe-Blum also argued that including a special line about military research could actually give a false sense that such work didn't need scrutiny. "We have so many protocols that govern the ethics of the research we do, that it would take the onus off of us to review our own research proposals thoroughly if we just defaulted to a line in a policy on who the sponsor of the research was."

Some students agree with that argument. A student newspaper, The McGill Tribune, said in an editorial: "Research should be judged on the basis of its potential consequences, regardless of who's funding it. It's difficult to draw the line between harmful and non-harmful research, and the wrong way to go about that is by identifying the military as the sole offender."

Another student newspaper, The McGill Daily, has come out against the proposed change, arguing that the change is designed "to cash in on big checks from the U.S. military and private defense corporations," adding: "This disregard for human life, coupled with excessive interest in financial gain and public recognition, is disgusting."

A student group, Demilitarize McGill, which is opposed to weapons research at McGill that has received support from the Pentagon, is also rallying against any change, saying that more scrutiny is needed of such ties.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers has not taken a stand on the proposed change at McGill. In the United States, many defenders of academic freedom have fought against limits on the sources of research dollars of professors, arguing that limiting such choices restricts scholars' academic freedom. For instance, the American Association of University Professors has defended the right of professors to receive research funds from the tobacco industry, even as other professors have called for a ban on such support.

The AAUP's policy on the issue states: “As a practical matter, the distinction between degrees of corporate misdeeds is too uncertain to sustain a clear, consistent and principled policy for determining which research funds to accept and which to reject. An institution which seeks to distinguish between and among different kinds of offensive corporate behavior presumes that it is competent to distinguish impermissible corporate wrongdoing from wrongful behavior that is acceptable. A university that starts down this path will find it difficult to resist demands that research bans should be imposed on other funding agencies that are seen as reckless or supportive of repellent programs.”

Gary Rhoades, general secretary of the AAUP, said he didn't know the details of the McGill debate, but that it was relevant that "what is being discussed is disclosure and professional ethics, not restriction or prohibition."

The Canadian Association of University Teachers places emphasis on issues of the common good. Its statement on social justice states: "All education grows out of respect for the common good of society, that is, out of recognition that individuals and groups have an obligation to pursue, not only their own interests, but the good of all. Education's most basic purpose is to enhance life and the dignity of the human person an objective that is difficult to achieve in the absence of fundamental human rights." And the association's policy on the ethics of universities accepting private donations for research states: "Institutional governing bodies should review the activities and the record of prospective private funders and reject a funding source if it has violated human rights or behaved unethically."

David Robinson, associate executive director of the faculty group, said that while some Canadian professors have "a libertarian streak" of believing that faculty members should judge research funding sources for themselves, that may be "more of a minority" than in the United States. The view in Canada is that "to fully exercise academic freedom, you have to exercise certain responsibilities," he said.

Further, he said that "the tradition in Canada has been to have much more suspicion of military funded research."


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