From the hotly debated motion at the October SSMU GA, to the controversial Remembrance Day protests staged by Demilitarize McGill, the issue of military research at McGill has been the centre of many a maelstrom on campus these past months. According to the activist group Demilitarize McGill, the University has a “history of complicity in colonization and imperialist warfare [through] military collaboration,” which must be disrupted. On the other side of the spectrum, military research is saluted as “an integral part of McGill [which] should be encouraged and expanded.” So, we asked four writers to weigh in on this contentious issue: should McGill, as an academic institution, conduct research benefiting the development of harmful military technology?
Whether McGill should conduct research that benefits the development of harmful military technology is a plain and clear “no.” However, that answer largely depends on one’s definition of the term “benefit.”
The most vehement opponent to McGill’s complicity and/or any possible links to the military is the controversial on-campus group, Demilitarize McGill (DM). In 2014, they staged a silent protest on Remembrance Day. Surprisingly, that demonstration, though peaceful, was greeted with a far harsher and more vocal response than that of the similarly-minded Anti-Imperialist Action (AIA). Last November, AIA “snuck into the engineering department of McGill University and jammed the locks of the Aerospace Mechatronics Lab using superglue as a minimum gesture of solidarity with the survivors of the Israeli state’s summer attack on Gaza.” While the efficacy of the latter protest method is questionable, the burning question remains: just how direct is the link between this particular engineering lab and the Israeli state’s aerial bombardment on Gaza?
After digging through the documents obtained by DM regarding the contract between the Mechatronics lab and the Canadian government, it was revealed that the main objectives of this particular project were to “develop algorithms to increase the autonomy of a commercial, off-the-shelf, unmanned, aerial vehicle,” and “allow it to land on stationary and moving targets for surveillance.” The ambiguity of that last intent aside, the fact remains that the lab’s task was to improve the manoeuvrability of these “small-scale UAVs”: tiny, baby-sized, unarmed, unmanned flying contraptions, which are essentially no different than commercial drones available at hobby stores.
While it is rather conspicuous how aerial surveillance technology can be, and is used for military purposes, the answer to the question boils down to this: there is no direct link between the Mechatronics Lab’s development and “the Israeli state’s summer attack on Gaza,” as asserted by DM. McGill’s direct involvement in the development of harmful military technology must not be condoned, but just where we must draw the line on technological development and its potential for violence remains a difficult question.
The Bull & Bear Contributor
Ranging from its narrowly-passed SSMU policy motion to its controversial Remembrance Day protest, Demilitarize McGill was a contentious organization during the Fall 2014 semester, and will undoubtedly continue to stir up conversations in this New Year. As an organization, DM seeks to end all military activity on campus, despite the critical role research plays in any academic environment. While their intentions are fair, their policies, if realized, would damage McGill’s reputation for quality instruction, groundbreaking research and a proper use of its state-of-the-art facilities.
The military research that takes place at McGill is diverse: each individual research project has a wide array of applications, both military and civilian. In the past, such military technologies have been key in the advancement of civilian technologies such as telecommunications. For example, the predecessor of the internet, ARPANET, was a packet switching computer network first developed by the US Department of Defense for its internal network. Even drone research, which has been demonized by Demilitarize McGill due to its negative public perception, can have an applicability that extends far beyond violent airstrikes. In fact, the drone research being completed at McGill’s Aerospace Mechatronics Lab could uncover civilian and humanitarian applications of aide drones in humanitarian missions and environmental monitoring.
The impact of rejecting military research would be felt mainly within the engineering community. Research opportunities attract professors at the top of their fields; these professors, in turn, provide top-quality education to us, the students. Departments like Mechanical Engineering, some of whose key professors conduct military research, would be severely damaged should the goals of Demilitarize McGill be realized. All research – including that which stems from military sources – ensures research funding. In fact, the financial importance of these initiatives is critical for our access to quality facilities on campus, better professors, teaching assistants and laboratory space. For students in the faculties of Engineering and Science, all of these elements are crucial because much of their technical education is obtained through laboratory use and access to quality instructors.
When it comes to the conduct of research on campus, a “special responsibility remains with the researchers to keep in mind the potential benefits against the possibility of harmful applications.” Those words, asserted by Rose Goldstein, Vice-Principal of Research and International Relations, essentially form the gist of McGill’s stance on military research.
Such a policy was formulated in a manner that is intended to ensure that researchers are constantly reminded of the ethics entailed in the work they’re conducting, all the while enabling them to complete their academic tasks largely without obstruction. This peculiar ambiguity was specially clarified at a time when the University claimed student groups, such as the infamous Demilitarize McGill, were attempting to impede the proper completion university operations with their “abusive” access to information requests.
But, then again, those “disruptive” student organizations certainly do have a point, especially when you consider the fact that, in 2009, the University repealed a 22-year-old clause requiring that any professor receiving military research funding from the military indicate “whether [the] research has direct harmful consequences.” This curious detail, as listed in the SSMU motion put forward by DM last semester, certainly does bring to the fore many questions on the motivations behind such an administrative decision.
Does it make it easier for researchers to accept lucrative research grants that, though potentially benefitting harmful military operations, could also benefit our beloved – and beleaguered – institution by providing students with access to greater educational opportunities? On the flip side, does it make it easier for the University to absolve itself of public accountability by placing the burden of ethical decision-making on its researchers who are assumed to be “socially responsible”?
Personally, when it comes to whether or not McGill should be conducting military research with potentially harmful implications, my answer is as vague as the University’s policy stance: it depends. And, honestly, it truly does. Ambiguity can’t help but rear its ugly head in such cases when the research does in fact present dual-use applications, which can benefit both civilian causes as well as military operations.
Truthfully, I guess now it’s just a matter of how much we can trust that McGill and its researchers are actually able to make the right decisions, as contentious as they may be. We must have faith in the administration, and its ability to judiciously draw the line between academic initiatives that have a “potential” for harmful applications, and military research that unequivocally does nothing more than ruthlessly – and anonymously – kill.
Fact: some of the research at McGill is done in partnership with, – but more accurately, in service of – military agencies, and arms manufacturers. Fact: these military agencies, in pursuit to kill the criminal, kill a great deal of innocent people. Conclusion: McGill has contributed to the wrongs of these military agencies, and is accordingly accountable.
Yes, this research can be used for beneficial, civilian purposes. But let’s call a spade a spade: the research, though its results may happen to have some civilian applications, remains, at its core, a militaristic project, conducted for military applications.
Yes, McGill is in bad economic shape, but even with austerity cuts and all the economic hardship considered, are we so desperate, and so morally depraved, that we’d take some sum of money at the price of such lives? Are we so hubristic that we would rather raise our prestige, collecting the world’s finest professors, as if they were baseball cards, at the expense of basic human decency?
My knee-jerk reaction is one of disgust and disappointment. My gut tells me: ethically, there is something clearly wrong with creating harmful military technology that would allow more people to be killed more efficiently.
That being said, I wonder how much of my pacifistic ideal is practical, and how much of it is a utopian fantasy. I don’t know about you, but I value my security, and I’m thankful to those who sacrifice a great deal to protect us. This important function of the military – a safeguard and shield – certainly doesn’t give our armed forces a free pass on their wrongdoings; they must be held accountable for their transgressions. But just as its importance does not excuse its wrongs, its wrongs do not dismiss its great significance for our society.
I’m in Arts. I also realize that, though my (thin) job prospects don’t depend on conducting such research, academic initiatives of the like may be the only thing keeping bread on the table for some families. People have got to make a living, support their families, and it’s hard out there.
So, my honest answer to the question of whether or not McGill should be conducting research benefitting the development of harmful military technology is: I don’t know. I don’t feel comfortable making a categorical judgement; and I think that may be for the better. On questions as multifaceted as this, perhaps categorical assertions – whether it be “military research is an atrocity” or “military research is a necessity” – ought not to be unconditional answers.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the authors’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Bull & Bear.