Academic Freedom And Foes Of The Military

January 2008

On May 24, 2007, Western News (the official weekly of the University of Western Ontario) reported a recommendation by the University Research Board that the Vice-President for Research "raise awareness of issues" arising from "military-related" research "with his counterparts in Ontario and the G-13 group of universities." This action came in response to pressure from a member of the University Senate, who argued explicitly that "limitations on academic freedom could be warranted" in order to curtail such research. He explained that "the military are authorized to use deadly force which brings up ethical issues," in particular the prospect that research might contribute to "the killing of someone."

The fact that the persons killed (except in cases of accident) would presumably be enemies trying to kill Canadians or their allies in war was a consideration that the senator seemed to regard as irrelevant. His concern was evidently to protect enemy lives, not the lives of Canadian and allied personnel -- the latter objective being one that might well be served by killing the enemy before he could kill somebody fighting on our side.

If the senator had his way, one group of taxpayer-funded institutions, the universities, would restrict individual faculty members' academic freedom -- their freedom of choice in research -- in order to enforce a policy of denying (or at least limiting) assistance to another taxpayer-funded institution, the armed forces. Whatever effect such a policy might have on taxpayers' perceptions of the academic community, it could easily result in a much broader threat to academic freedom than may be apparent at first sight.

In 2001, on a visit to the University of Texas in Austin, I noticed an item posted on a bulletin board about a scientist who was studying the ability of certain snakes to detect prey at night by sensing tiny differences in temperature. It was explained that if more could be learned about the snakes' temperature sensors, it might be possible to apply the knowledge in developing technology for distinguishing between decoys and real missile warheads in space, thus opening the door to more effective anti-missile defence. To judge from the material on the bulletin board, the University of Texas had no qualms about the research -- rather the reverse -- but it could easily appear "unethical" in the eyes of those hostile to the armed forces, on the ground that effective anti-missile defence would tend to neutralize a potential enemy's deterrent, giving the United States and its allies more freedom of military action.

This example suggests how extensive the obstacles to scientific investigation might become if universities established procedures (as the UWO senator advocated) for screening research with "potential military application" -- to quote the report in Western News -- for its "ethical" acceptability. A great deal of research primarily intended just to expand knowledge, or to serve civilian purposes, may have results with "potential" uses in war.

Though radar began as a military project, it could equally well have been civilian in origin. The fate of the Titanic in 1912 had shown the need for it, and with the rise of air travel the need increased; but the potential military value (such as the detection of approaching bombers) would have been obvious from the start. Would it have been "unethical" for a university scientist to contribute to radar's development? In the eyes of the apparently pacifist senator at Western, the answer might be "yes," since success could lead (as it did) to the killing of enemy bomber crews.

If the senator had his way, vast areas of study would become "ethical" minefields. Anything related to metallurgy, fuels, lasers or electronics -- especially if it could be applied to communications, computers, reconnaissance (and thus identification of targets), guidance and propulsion systems, protective armour, etc. -- would be vulnerable to obstruction by an "ethics" review board, especially if its members were politically hostile to the armed forces or to the policies of the government controlling them. At best, researchers seeking approval for their plans would have to put up with paperwork, delays and uncertainty. They might feel under pressure to avoid possibly controversial projects, even at the cost of sacrificing their own priorities.

The recommendation by Western's University Research Board that an effort be made to "raise awareness" at other institutions about "issues" connected with research of potential military valuenow seems unlikely to produce any imminent reprehensible result.Western News (November 1) quoted a statement by President Paul Davenport in defence of academic freedom, explicitly including the freedom of faculty members to undertake research of a "controversial" nature.At that time, however, University policy did not appearaltogether consistent with Dr. Davenport's words. Western Newsreported also that at a Senate meeting in late October, where arriving members encountered anti-military campaigners handing out leaflets, the campaigners "received the answers they wanted to hear -- the university is taking steps to address their concerns" through the activities of the Vice-President for Research, who indeed had been trying to "raise awareness" elsewhere.

One can hope thatthese activitieswere never intended to be more than meaningless gestures of symbolic appeasement to pacify the agitators,but in any case they met a cold reception from other university administrations.On November 22 Western News reported the Vice-President's announcement that he had received a letter from his G-13 counterparts rejecting the idea of setting up "ethical review" bodies to screen military-related research. The Ontario Council on University Research had expressed a similar view.

Though objections to military-related researchhad been raised also on other campuses, the G-13 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 establish national guidelines. Last spring, citing the lack of such guidelines, Western's University Research Board judged the creationof an "ethics" review body to be "premature," and in November 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 researchto Canadian and allied armed forces may be harmful. It might better be viewed as a service to society, which the armed forces of a democracy also serve.

For the time being, however, the threat to academic freedom has receded. Since an attack on free choice in research could have an adverse impact on faculty recruitment, any one university may be deterred from adopting a restrictive policy on its own.On the other hand, opponents of free choice will probably keep the issue alive and try to put pressure on university administrations in the future.If a large number of universities wereever to agree on a common standard for "ethics" assessments, they might be emboldened to go along with the anti-military elements likely to be present among both faculty and students on the typical campus. Scientific progress, the usefulness of universities to society at large, and the cause of academic freedom would all belosers.