Demilitarize McGill: Questionable research on campuses

by uwchevron

by Amy Rose Gofton

The university as an institution is a place of learning, but it is also a place of research. Demilitarize McGill, an anti-military research and recruitment organization with an average membership of between 7 and 20 people, at McGill University understands the research side of the institution all too well. According to the Demilitarize website, they have a self-appointed mandate to “interrupt the University’s history of complicity in colonization and imperialist warfare by ending military collaboration at McGill.” In practice, this translates into an opposition of military research and recruitment on their campus.

Focusing on education and direct action, Demilitarize McGill has submitted Access To Information Requests to both their university and the military, run workshops and walking tours, and even blockaded research labs. One blockade, members of Demilitarize McGill say, “ended with the university adminis-
tration calling the Montreal police onto campus.” A banner was seized and protestors were forced to disperse, but no arrests were made.

Demilitarize McGill believes that allowing their university to continue military funded or aimed research on their campus perpetuates the “military-industrial complex.” In other words, they believe the research on their campus contributes to the ability of political, military and corporate actors to collaborate in the waging of wars. Unfortunately, universities—which receive both
public and private funding—serve as convenient places for these actors to exploit labour and resources, as they do not need to fully fund the research themselves.

The exposing of military research at McGill dates back to 1984, when journalists from the McGill Daily revealed the Canadian Department of Defence funded fuel-air explosives research on the campus. The current Demilitarize McGill, which was reincarnated in 2012, draws on the spirit of that discovery, and has uncovered a number of concerning research areas. They allege
that documents, obtained by an Access To Information Request, show that drone research at the university’s Mechatronics Lab received $380,000 from the Department of National Defence. Demilitarize McGill has also raised concerns about Missile Guidance research and anti-icing research for fighter jets. The group is es- pecially concerned with the continued work of the Shock Wave Physics group—a group Demilitarize McGill says was once directly funded by U.S grants.

More recently, Demilitarize McGill has raised concerns over a psychology study in which 80 Somali Canadians participated in a survey gathering information on identity issues. An article published by the Montreal Gazette says the survey studied the participant’s adjustment to life in Canada, but was also interested in what factors might lead them to
affiliations with terrorist organizations. The participants were not informed that funding for the study came from the DRDC (Defence Research and Development Canada). Although McGill
University says no rules were broken in not disclosing the funding for the study, Demilitarize McGill refers to it “as a serious breach of research ethics,” and vows to pressure
McGill University into creating better policy.

There is no question that military research has taken place and is taking place at McGill University, but what about our own campus? How much does the average student know about the
research that goes on here at the University of Waterloo? UW’s motto is that “ideas start here,” but how much attention does the average student really pay to those ideas? Every week or so, we
see the Waterloo Facebook page updated with news of new research: “Groundbreaking Study Reveals Best Sex Positions to Save Spines,” or “Very Low Nicotine Cigarettes May Reduce Addiction.” While much of the UW research we hear about sounds very ethical and at times very helpful, at a University of our size, which is constantly expanding, we must keep in mind the possibility if ethical breaches in research on campus. Demilitarize McGill, when asked how students at other universities (such as UW) can find out if military-related or ethically suspect research is taking place on their campus, recommended filing Access to Information Requests to the Department of National Defense and the University (as some military-related research is funded by private companies). “We also find lots of information just by doing internet research,” the group said. “It’s just a matter of digging up the details.” Demilitarize McGill said they are “very willing to help . . . students at other universities find out if . . . [military research] is going on where they are studying.”

What Demilitarize McGill has proved is that it is possible for students to discover and respond to policies that violate the right of students to study and work in an environment which does not contribute to the waging of war. If, at any time, research or university policy at UW crosses an ethical boundary, we as students must, and can, be prepared to raise a voice in complaint and take action to ensure that our University’s policies match the desires of its student body.