A new draft of the proposed Regulation on the Conduct of Research policy was met by vocal opposition from student senators at a McGill Senate meeting last Wednesday.
According to Vice-Principal (Research and International Relations) Denis Therien the policy is intended to "reinforce, modernize, and clarify" McGill's standards for research ethics. However, the newest draft omits two clauses regarding military research that exist in the current research ethics policy and adds an anonymity clause for research sponsors acting "legitimately and in good faith" - changes that some student senators view as a step backward for transparent and ethical research at McGill.
"This is a blatantly regressive step for McGill to take," said Arts Senator Sarah Woolf. "We had been working to make this research policy more progressive, and now it seems that we've taken two steps backwards. It's not just that the clauses regarding military-funded research have been removed ... it's that they've taken every mention of harmful research out of the entire document."
The first clause regarding military funding removed from the draft required any "applicants for contracts or grants whose source is a government military agency [to] 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 second clause required the VP research to report on research funded by government military agencies to the Executive Committee of the Board of Governors, who would have the final authority to approve or disallow such research.
At Senate, Therien claimed that the military-funding clauses evoked confusion over whether certain research had "direct harmful consequences," which he views a matter of opinion.
"This is probably why no university in Canada has explicitly addressed military funding in their policies," said Therien. "If the research is legal and passes the various review and ethical boards that are applicable to the research then it would be very dangerous to try to prevent [research] on 'flavour of the day' criteria. It would be a very slippery slope."
The military-funding clauses were instituted in 1988 after students protested the development of explosives and other weaponry at McGill. According to the student group Demilitarize McGill, the university has been involved in developing lethal weapons since at least the 1960s and some professors have continued to contribute to weapons research over the past decade.
Rebecca Dooley, the Students' Society vice-president university affairs, expressed disappointment with the university's decision and vowed to fight for changes to the policy.
"The clauses that were removed do not really regulate military-sponsored research at McGill - they were more so clauses that promoted transparency," said Dooley. "And since military research is a divisive issue on which there is no common consensus, why not have an extra step to promote transparency in that area of research?"
"I think that if those two clauses had been removed and that similar measures surrounding research with potentially harmful effects had been included, along with a clearer review policy for such research, then that would have been a more understandable and logical step."
The addition of a clause mandating researchers to respect anonymity agreements between the university and certain research sponsors was also hotly debated at Senate. In response to criticism from senators, Therien said that the grant office, under his leadership, would be able to determine whether a research sponsor was making a legitimate and good faith request for anonymity.
"If the sponsor is trying to hide something then they do not have a legitimate reason to remain anonymous," said Therien.
When Post Graduate Students' Society President Daniel Simeone said that he could not think of a "possible legitimate reason for [a sponsor remaining anonymous," Therien did not provide an example to refute Simeone's accusation.
The new research policy was discussed but not approved at Wednesday's Senate meeting, and will likely undergo further changes. Woolf said that she would be "very surprised" if the policy came forward for approval at the next Senate meeting, citing the "litany" of problems raised by senators during the meeting, and opposition from the McGill Association of University Teachers and student senators.
"These moves are about research dollars," Woolf said. "It's about [McGill] saying, 'We need to be as attractive and appealing to potential sponsors and donors as the other Group of 13 universities.' ... Sure, we're going through a period of economic turmoil, but when you're sacrificing ethics for research dollars then I think we have a real problem."