Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Military-Funded Research: More Bucks for the Bang?

Guilty.  I am guilty of taking defense dollars for my research.  Today, there is a story in the Gazette about McGill's policies on using military money.  A clause was put on the research ethics form awhile ago, asking whether one's funding comes from the military and whether it is harmful. This was apparently due to protests over McGill scientists research fuel-air bombs, which are very destructive.

A few stray thoughts (as I prepare multiple presentations for a conference next week, I am thinking in bullets, rather than in paragraphs--ironic given this topic):
  • The current revisions seek to bring McGill into accordance with other major research universities--dropping the focus on the military.
  • The form and the process are mostly aimed at protecting our subjects (animals, humans, environment) and not about the end goals of these projects--like killing people better.  So, there may be a bit of disconnect between what the research ethics process is designed for and the desire to limit researchers as a "tool" of the military-industrial complex.
  • Students get upset when research is funded by the private sector and when it is funded by the military.  They also get upset when tuition rises or classes get bigger.  I wonder how we are supposed to pay for all of this? [Though to be fair, the student newspapers are now continuing opinions in favor of tuition increases, having seen the writing on the wall]
  • The military does not have a monopoly on destruction, although, of course, its willingness to kill and destroy is a bit more obvious.  So, should all research be vetted by whether it facilitates harm?   Of course, then that opens the door to considering what is harm.
  • Then, of course, there is the substitution problem--if the academics do not study fuel-air bombs and this stuff is then done by the private sector, have we stopped the arms race?  Or have we just made it look like we are more moral and upstanding without really changing the reality?
  • Of course, I am biased.  My dissertation was funded by the Institute on Global Cooperation and Conflict, which was a U of Cal system-wide body that funded research on security issues.  It was, in part, funded by the US government as conscience money since UC runs the nuke labs at Los Alamos and Livermore (and another place).
  • And I am biased again, as my trip to Australia and New Zealand next month is funded by an arm of the Canadiian Department of National Defence--the Security and Defence Forum, which aims to outreach/network between the military and academia.  Of course, my research is actually aimed at oversight, rather than how to kill people more effectively.  But I worry how idealistic thinking about military interactions with civilians may end such otherwise "non-kinetic" interactions.
In sum, I worry about the effect of student protest on research, I think that trying to cut the links between academia and the military is a mistake, and I am entirely biased.

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