Sergeant Scientist: McGill’s Role in Military Research

Source: Douglas G. LaFon; U.S. Army/WIkimedia Commons.
(Douglas G. LaFon; U.S. Army/WIkimedia Commons)

McGill has a long and fascinating history of pseudo-military research: for example, the CIA conducted extremely damaging experiments on depatterning at the Douglas in the mid-1900s. More recently, you’ve probably seen a few simple grey stickers that attempt to lay out McGill’s current role in military research. These stickers have been created and posted by a group called Demilitarize McGill. This group, active in its most recent incarnation since early 2012, regrouped due to concerns about a possible war in Iran. While this group has adopted the same name that was associated with an effort in 2010 to change the McGill Research Ethics Policy, this group began as a separate entity. “The possibility of an imminent new war certainly played a part in encouraging a few of us to restart the kind of work that Demilitarize McGill had done in 2010,” Demilitarize McGill said via e-mail.  The work that members of this group chose to pursue include filing numerous Access to Information requests (ATIs), which have only recently been resolved. According to Demilitarize McGill, they “submitted access-to-information (ATI) requests [as individuals] to McGill in an effort to further solidify some of the connections we had been able to establish between McGill research and weapons development.”

McGill initially alleged that the extreme number of such requests were unreasonable. For this reason, they at first refused to fulfill them. Courts denied McGill the right to ignore all ATIs deemed “frivolous” or “overly broad”; last month, the McGill Daily reported that the ATI requests had been settled out of court. McGill will provide some of the information that has been requested, and some requests have been withdrawn. So, between February 28th and August 15th, McGill will release information about military research and fossil fuel investments. While Demilitarize McGill waited, they pursued information via other pathways. “We’ve actually had considerable success with research targeting publicly available information. By no means has this been a substitute for responses to our ATI requests, but we already know a lot about McGill’s military research on the basis of online and other public sources,” they said.

Undoubtedly, the work of Demilitarize McGill and the documents released as a result of the successful ATI requests will fuel commentary about the role McGill plays in controversial issues. It can be hard to process all the layers that separate researchers from drone strikes in Afghanistan. While none of Demilitarize McGill’s claims seem to be untrue, the relationship between McGill’s researchers and institutes and military research is murky at best.

Sticker shock

The ATI requests and the stickers we see around campus have particularly involve three McGill units: The Shockwave Physics Group (SWPG), the Institute of Air and Space Law (IASL), and the Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) lab. On the surface, none of these groups seem to have any directly military connection. However, Demilitarize McGill is concerned about the applications of their research and the possible conditions underlying the funding they receive.  The CFD lab exemplifies the concerns of Demilitarize McGill. This lab receives funding from a company based in Montreal that specializes in flight simulations. This company – CAE – is the recipient of a contract to train US Air Force drone pilots. The CFD lab also shares personnel with Newmerical Technologies, which sells software to drone and aircraft manufacturers. Specifically, Dr. Habashi – the lab’s director – is also the CEO of Newmerical Technologies. Demilitarize McGill claims that the “relationship clearly creates an incentive to shape CFD Lab research in favor of the needs of actual or potential Newmerical clients, in an industry where drones represent the fastest growing segment.” Habashi has cited drone crashes in Afghanistan as a potential motivation to pursue further CFD research – as he put it (in the linked paper): “crashing the computer is a hell of a lot preferable to crashing an airplane.”

The Institute for Air and Space Law (IASL) has also been a target. Demilitarize McGill has their resasons: “After an article was published last year about one of our walking tours which made a stop at the Institute for Air and Space Law, the Institute very publicly denounced our claims that they are in any way connected to military research. They did not mention the $500,000 Boeing Fellowship that began in 2008*, Boeing being a major weapons manufacturer whose main clients include the US Air Force. In this case, the IASL seems more interested in protecting their image than actually engaging with the question of ties to the military.”

McGill returns fire

The IASL, of course, has a different perspective. According to Professor Paul Dempsey, the Boeing Fellowship wasn’t tied to military research at all – the money went mostly towards funding graduate projects. “The money overwhelmingly went to students to cover tuition and living expenses,” Prof. Dempsey wrote in an e-mail to me, “and no students were required to do any specific research on military issues or anything else.  I remember one wrote a thesis on flying cars, another wrote on commercial spaceports, and another wrote on the regulation of small community airline service.” Some money was used for outreach activities, including conferences in Abu Dhabi, Macao, and New Delhi. Boeing executives spoke at these events but “not about military technology or military anything.  It was all about commercial aircraft.” Moreover, Prof. Dempsey wishes that Demilitarize McGill had spoken to them before making any claims or accusations in their extensive publications about the IASL and other organizations.

Advanced tactics

The group knows that it is unlikely that McGill’s research policy will ever specifically exclude military research: “it is far from clear that rejecting this research aligns with the interests of an institution as invested in a permanent war economy as is McGill. Therefore it is far from clear that we would get anywhere by petitioning the administration to reject this research. The University will defend its interests.” Instead, they hope that their ATIs serve to “create awareness about military research being done on campus and to open a dialogue between concerned students”, in the process allowing demilitarization to be challenged directly by students as a part of a larger effort to end militarization in the world. They also specify that: “we do not see our actions at McGill as separate from the greater fight to end militarization (…) We know that we must approach these issues in many ways to be most effective.”

While the group notes being “careful about the claims we make, and actively [pursuing] all relevant information,” their approach is still open to critique. McGill’s involvement in military research and relationship to active military operations is complex; it cannot – and perhaps should not – be summarized in a sentence on a sticker on the back of a bathroom stall. Everyone – researchers and members of Demilitarize McGill alike – would likely agree with something Prof. Dempsey wrote to me: “No one should throw hand grenades at innocent people” – be they literal or metaphorical. While Demilitarize McGill cannot be accused of falsifying the path between members of the McGill community and military forces beyond the Roddick Gates, they could be more careful about inflating what relationships do exist between McGill’s research or academic activities, and the military.

Neither the SWPG or the CFD lab could be reached for comment. 

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