Demilitarize McGill: FAQ
On this page you’ll find answers to some questions that we tend to hear a lot. We envision these responses as part of a continuing conversation.
1) Some of the research you talk about may have non-military uses. How can you oppose research activities with civilian applications?
While it’s true that scientific research in general can have a wide variety of applications, this is not the case for the research that Demilitarize opposes. The research in question concerns military-specific applications and technology, and is generally funded by and/or done in collaboration with military contractors or armed forces themselves. For example, the CFD Lab has developed software for specific aircraft used exclusively for military purposes, while the Shockwave Physics Group‘s research on explosives has been carried out in collaboration with the Canadian and American militaries with the explicit goal of bomb development.
2) A number of everyday technologies, like GPS and the internet, were originally developed through military research projects. Doesn’t opposing military research mean depriving society of technologies that will improve people’s lives?
The forms of broad, fundamental scientific research that led to the development of technologies like the internet can be clearly distinguished from projects going on today at McGill – projects that aim to improve the versatility and lethal capabilities of specific weapons systems in use by Western militaries.
More importantly, the argument that certain socially useful inventions redeem military research assumes that these new technologies fit within an overarching historical narrative of progress. Globally, the vast majority of people’s lives have not improved because of technologies like GPS or the internet. Rather, the same governments and corporate interests that are responsible for the most devastating military invasions and occupations on the planet tend to manage civilian applications of these technologies to advance their own agendas, to heighten global inequalities, and to facilitate more efficient exploitation and control. Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s global surveillance programs, for instance, show that for the United States, the internet is an unprecedented means of collecting vast amounts of data on the communications, relationships, and movements of people around the world.
Narratives around technological progress also tend to ignore the inherent limits to a mode of organizing society predicated on indefinite growth. These limits are made visible perhaps most starkly in the building scientific consensus that climate change caused by human use of technology will have catastrophic effects on ecosystems and human communities around the world, and that we are past the point where technological innovations are likely to be able to prevent these effects. How is this relevant to Demilitarize? These elements of context enable us to think about civilian technological developments not as standing in opposition to, or as redeeming military research, but as the other side of the coin. Indeed, wealthy states are already preparing for the mounting internal instability and external threats that will flow from the effects of global heating by developing more advanced forms of militarized policing and border security, and by adapting their armed forces to the demands of asymetric conflict and resource wars.
3) Has the McGill administration responded to concerns over military research?
As stated above, McGill has nothing in the way of official policy on military research. Because much of the research at issue takes place through university-industry agreements and in the absence of restrictions on research with military applications, McGill’s stance on these collaborations generally is at issue. At a panel discussion on industry partnerships in December 2012 where members of Demiltarize raised concerns about military research, McGill’s Vice-Principal (Research), Rose Goldstein, emphasized her belief that corporate partnerships have important benefits for the University. Her statements were consistent with McGill’s recent expansion of its efforts to secure corporate partnerships. For instance, the University has created the McGill University Business Engagement Centre (MUBEC), which promises companies “a one-stop shop for all your corporate needs”, enabled “by aligning McGill’s strengths and strategic priorities with your strategic interests”.
Perhaps due to recognition of the controversial nature of such projects, military-related access-to-information requests featured prominently in the requests McGill sought to block through the courts for over a year, but has now agreed to respond to. Interviewed on CBC Radio after this development, the University’s Chief Counsel, Line Thibault, asserted that the University had nothing to be ashamed of in this area.
4) Doesn’t McGill need to compensate for government underfunding by seeking corporate and military funding for research?
The notion that McGill is an underfunded university has been largely discredited. The 2012 student strike-era Liberal government used the claim that Quebec universities were underfunded in an attempt to justify its proposed tuition hike, but failed to divulge a 2011 study showing that government spending per student was in fact higher in Quebec than in other Canadian provinces. The research institute IRIS has shown that problems attributed to underfunding actually result from questionable allocation of resources. This rings true still today, in the face of new budget cuts, as the University seeks to close libraries, renegotiate collective agreements with workers, and raise student fees, yet continue expensive construction projects and maintain extravagant salaries and benefits for upper administrators.
Even if McGill were underfunded, Demilitarize would oppose justifying military research on this basis, because that would mean prioritizing the economic health of the University – already a site of intense privilege and safe training ground for tomorrow’s CEOs, lawyers, and politicians – over the lives and physical health of the people targeted daily by imperialist military aggression.
5) Why don’t you focus on lobbying the McGill administration to improve its policies on transparency and research ethics?
Demilitarize does not focus on policy lobbying for two reasons. Firstly, such efforts have historically backfired at McGill. In 2009, a previous iteration of Demilitarize McGill participated in a lengthy policy review process with members of the administration, leading to the inclusion of stricter research regulations in a draft policy proposal. However, once the draft arrived at Senate, not only were the stricter provisions scrapped almost immediately, but regulations that were in place since student mobilizations in the 1980s were abolished. Members of the 2009 group today conclude that their time and resources would have been better directed toward talking with students and mobilizing resistance that does not rely on the University’s governance structures or bureaucracy.
Secondly, we feel that ending the university’s complicity in violence, imperialism, and war must go much deeper than simply amending a policy. We believe that real change around these issues requires critical reflection and discussion aimed at transforming attitudes towards the academy-military relationship as well as the real relations of power that sustain it. To this end, Demilitarize does not envision itself single-handedly reshaping research practices at McGill; rather, it seeks to engage the broader community in the struggle against the University’s complicity in war.
6) Wouldn’t ending military research negatively affect job and career opportunities for engineering students?
An important function of McGill’s collaboration with military agencies and defense contractors is to produce the workers needed by these organizations. That’s why McGill’s military partners fund and otherwise support various research positions and graduate student opportunities, particularly in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. These positions serve to train students to be productive workers in military R&D settings beyond academia. Indeed, McGill researchers regularly go on to work for firms like Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer of the F-35 fighter jet, and government agencies like Defence Research & Development Canada.
While Demilitarize McGill’s aim is not to harm the career prospects of engineering students or see a decrease in the resources available to them, we recognize that the availability of many of these resources depends on activities that directly support the development of lethal military technologies. We believe it is more important to interrupt work that makes it easier for western armies to kill people in service of imperialism than to maintain Engineering jobs and resources at exactly their current level.
7) Demilitarize often makes reference to the American military and American foreign policy, but we are in Canada, so why is this relevant?
American military activities are relevant to us for two reasons. First, military research at McGill supports American military objectives at least as extensively as Canadian ones. CFD Lab research has supported the development of software that is sold to General Atomics, the manufacturer of every attack drone in the U.S. military’s arsenal today, for use in drone anti-icing systems. Meanwhile, among the leading corporate partners of the Lab is CAE, which trains U.S. drone pilots. In addition, the CFD lab has ongoing research collaborations with American labs funded by the US military.
Second, Canadian military action tends to evolve in close collaboration with, if not in service of American foreign policy, meaning that Canadian and American military research objectives often align, and that a range of Canadian military innovations will inevitably be deployed in support of U.S.-led wars. For example, in the Afghanistan War, which has seen the deployment of thousands of Canadian soldiers, U.S. forces have benefited from Shock Wave Physics Group research, finding thermobaric weapons to be particularly effective for killing people in tunnels and caves. We believe that discussing the deadly consequences of American uses of military technology developed with the support of McGill is essential.
8) If professors are choosing to do this kind of research, aren’t you infringing on their academic freedom by opposing their work?
On the contrary, we believe that military research practices at McGill contradict most people’s idea of academic freedom, which values the protection of scholarship from the pressures of economic and political power. At McGill, the agendas of military agencies and defense contractors, which do not allow for freely chosen academic interests, are determining the directions of research. Corporate funding of the CFD Lab, for instance, gives defense contractors Bombardier, CAE, and Bell Helicopter de facto control of research objectives, by making university researchers dependent on them for resources. Meanwhile, the Shock Wave Physics Group and Aerospace Mechatronics Lab among others allow the Canadian military to determine the precise nature of their work when they bid for research contracts that give the labs virtually no say in the shape of the research.
Furthermore, our aim is not to restrict or dictate academics’ interest in a given area of research. Rather, we are opposed to projects which are designed from the outset to more efficiently injure and kill people; it is these people whose ‘freedom’ is being truly curtailed. As noted above, academic freedom is intended to protect scholars from external pressures, not to empower them to contribute to concrete and wide-ranging harm.