In the last issue of the SAFS Newsletter, (January, 2008) I described a threat to academic freedom resulting from the efforts of anti-military campaigners to restrict research that might be potentially useful to Canadian or allied armed forces. Even before my article was published, this threat had receded, though perhaps only for the time being. (It was an early version of the article that appeared in print, though an updated version soon replaced it on the SAFS website.)
At the University of Western Ontario, anti-military agitators had obtained an assurance that the Vice-President for Research was attempting to "raise awareness" in other institutions about "issues" related to research of possible military value -- an attempt that did not seem entirely consistent with President Paul Davenport's public defence of faculty members' right to undertake "controversial" research projects. Fortunately, the Vice-President's initiatives met with a cold reception from other university administrations. In due course he announced that he had received a letter from his counterparts in the G-13 group of universities rejecting the idea of setting up "ethical review" bodies to screen the research in question. The Ontario Council on University Research had adopted a similar position.
Though objections to military-related research had been raised also on other campuses, the G-13 group explicitly recognized the difficulty of distinguishing between research that would lead to "harm" and research that would not. On this ground the G-13 refused to endorse even an attempt to set national guidelines. In the spring of 2007, citing the lack of such guidelines, Western's University Research Board judged the creation of an "ethics" review body to be "premature," and after the G-13's response the Vice-President reiterated this conclusion.
Such repeated use of the term "premature" -- rather than something like "bad idea in both principle and practice" -- is not entirely reassuring. Neither is the G-13's implied acceptance of the notion that rendering assistance through research to Canadian and allied armed forces may be harmful. It might be better viewed as a service tosociety, which the armed forces of a democracy also serve.
What can we expect in future? It is significant that the particular target of the anti-military campaign at Western was a project involving materials intended to provide greater protection from mines and rocket-propelled grenades -- in other words, research aimedat reducing casualties among Canadian and allied military personnel. The campaigners' evident desire to prevent a reduction insuch deaths and injuries suggests a high degree of fanaticism. Since fanatics rarely take "no" for an answer, and may even be encouraged by a term like "premature," we have to fear that the enemies of free choice by researchers will try to revive the issue of "military-related" research in future, and make new attempts to put pressure on university administrations.