McGill Policy

McGill has a history of eluding ethical concerns on military research in its policies. In 1984, journalists from The McGill Daily discovered research in fuel-air explosives at McGill, funded by the Canadian Department of Defence. A four-year battle ensued where students advocated for McGill’s research to meet ethical standards and review the potential harm the projects it was engaged it could inflict. It wasn’t until 1988, when seven students put forth a 250-page document titled “How to Make a Killing” and occupied the VP Research office for three days that the administration agreed. Finally, McGill passed regulations on military-funded research ensuring that “applicants 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.” The hope was that, as a result of this, controversial research at McGill would be subject to ethical review in the future.

By 2007, however, there was growing concern regarding the actual effectiveness of the policy in place. For instance, researchers were only required to report potential harmful effects of their research when the researcher directly received funding from a military agency through a contract or grant. This did not account for situations where weapons research did not have direct military funding, such as David Frost’s work on thermobaric weapons; his grant money was tied to colleagues. The 2009 Demilitarize McGill initially called for stricter restrictions to prevent such instances, such as a review process that required an ethical review of any research conducted in conjunction with anyone receiving military employment or funding.

But this did not happen. Over time, the policy put forth in 1988 was watered down. Thermobaric weapons research continued and it became clear that McGill was overlooking its own policy. In 2007, when the protocol from 1988 was still a part of McGill policy, information was received that the Vice President of Research at McGill had been in contact with other university administrations denying the existence of an ethical military policy at all.

In 2009, McGill began the process of proposing a new policy on ethical research in general. The first draft of the proposal included a preamble embracing social responsibility and a clause asking for the review of potentially harmful research. These provisions, however, were scrapped almost immediately, and in 2010, the Senate adapted a draft which lacked any ethical review for potentially harmful research, such as the thermobaric weapons that McGill is entangled with today. It purposefully omitted the policy that was won by students in 1988.

Today, McGill has no body to evaluate the potential harm of the applications of its military research. No special kind of attention is paid to research funded by non-peer review sources, such as military organizations. McGill has used the absence of review bodies for ethical military research in other universities as an excuse to not adopt one itself. McGill has deliberately omitted any ethical view of military research and tip-toed around policies even when they were in place.

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