Demistifying Military-Funded Research

On October 22nd, 2014, SSMU held a General Assembly where the society discussed, among others, its stance on climate change, governmental austerity measures, and harmful military research. As a result of the SSMU GA, a motion passed regarding the “support of a campus free from harmful military technology development”. Though vague, this motion has created quite a stir on campus with its implications. After attending the General Assembly, I sought to demystify various claims against military-related research on campus.

HISTORY OF MILITARY RESEARCH IN THE UNITED STATES AND CANADA

Following the Vietnam War, the United States was faced with the ongoing Cold War,the infamous struggle of arms between the Soviet Union and America. According to History of Operations Research in the United States Army, the majority of Americans were worried because their “perception was that while the United States had been preoccupied in Southeast Asia, the Soviet Union had made significant progress in developing new military technology and improving Soviet military forces.” This anxiety served as the primary fuel for the post-war technological boom in the 1970s and 1980s. Though Russia and the United States attempted many treaties to stunt the weapons race, it was widely known that these countries were the leading manufacturers of atomic weapons.

The Cold War loomed in front of the United States for so long that the government invested in many short and long term research projects. Thanks to military-funded research in post-secondary learning and private institutions, the United States experienced massive technological discoveries, many of which had useful civilian applications.

The desire for creating a database that could withstand complete motherboard destruction resulted in the basis of what is now the Internet. Without military research, the handheld GPS would be another unrealistic dream, as the GPS was initially invented for airplane tracking. Research of the diseases that permeated the barracks of war resulted in the foundations of modern medicine and antibiotics. But among the instrumental technological advancements that occurred in this era as a result of military-funded research, there is also one more creation that will be remembered: the atomic bomb.

ECONOMICS & EXPLOSIVE APPLICATIONS

World War II was the deadliest human event of all time, largely due to the vast technological developments. Aircrafts, missiles, and explosives replaced close-range weaponry, rifles, and hand grenades. That being said, even at the height of war in Vietnam, only about 10% of all explosives were distributed for military purposes, according to Paul Cooper in his book Explosives Engineering. The other 90% of explosives were predominately used for commercial blasting.

Blasting is an essential process for mining, urbanization, and infrastructure. According to Canadian Industry Statistics (CIS) of the Government of Canada, the mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction industries are responsible for a gross domestic product (GDP) of about 125 billion dollars. Being one of Canada’s premier industries, the Canadian government chooses to allocate resources towards maintaining their standings at the frontier of modern mining. Furthermore, the Mining Association of Canada claims that “approximately 400,000 people across Canada work in the mining and mineral processing industries.”

Explosives, while having an extremely negative colloquial connotation, are extremely important to many of Canada’s industries, and are essential for the continued growth of the country. For infrastructure purposes, it is essential to break up the base rock into smaller pieces. Due to its proximity to Mount Royal, all of McGill is essentially lying on top of a thick slab of impermeable earth. Without explosives, our beloved study spots of Trottier and Wong would not exist, not to mention most of Montreal’s skyscrapers, the metro system, and the underground mall.

STUDENTS’ TUITION

One of the main criticisms for military-funded research at McGill is that students believe it is unfair for the university to use students’ tuition money to support such controversial research. As one student described, “they should use their own time, own budget, own space.” Furthermore, annother student claimed that military research was “monetarily and fiscally a problem.”

Most students agree that they have a right to assess what their tuition money is going towards, and strongly oppose the use of tuition on military-related research projects. Unfortunately, it seems as though there is a large misunderstanding about the allocation of tuition funds. While the university allocates plenty of money toward research and equipment, students’ tuition is not responsible for funding individual research projects.

Graduate research projects rely heavily upon private and governmental funds. The students and their professors must prepare and submit a research proposal, highlighting the ideals of the experiment. If selected, they will discuss the terms of the project with the supplier and negotiate until a consensus has been reached. During this stage, McGill as the educational institution often claims many ownership rights and monetary gains with the results of the culminated research. The terms of each research contract vary, but McGill generally ends up benefitting fiscally from research findings.

MORALITY, CONTROVERSY, AND PROPAGANDA

One of the most important ideas to clarify when discussing military research was brought up at the SSMU General Assembly by a student who insisted that “not all military is harmful, and not all harmful is military.” We must make the distinction between the two. The SSMU motion protests “harmful military technological development,” which most if not all of McGill’s research would not classify under.

Unfortunately, propaganda around campus has led students to a perspective where McGill is being commissioned by the government to directly produce weapons for the military. On October 26, the popular anti-military group Demilitarize McGill tweeted a poster indicating a military research campus tour at McGill during its Open House event. This advertisement used the McGill Open House template and the McGill logo to portray it as the university bragging about “the groundbreaking research that our men and women in uniform need to fight and kill the enemy”. It is evident that McGill was not the author of this poster. The propaganda, put up by Demilitarize McGill, is intended to grab the attention of the reader, and this poster does. It is extremely embarrassing that the student group accusing McGill of not being transparent feels the need to use misinformation and shady techniques in order to attract interest in their cause.

Dr. Andrew Higgins, member of the Shock Wave Physics Group and Associate Professor of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, is consistently targeted for controversial research due to the nature and potential applications of shock wave physics. He is currently leading a project in which the basis is to discern the most effective armored resistance against shock waves in combat. Because Canada has thousands of peacekeepers deployed internationally, the Canadian government is interested in furthering their protection.

As Dr. Higgins stresses, graduate studies and research at McGill are based on “fundamental principles” that serve as “building blocks for academia.” In other words, though the research is practical and innovative, McGill remains “many steps removed” from firms that are actually being commissioned to design and create weapons. Could the research at McGill provide a basis in the future for a weapon that has the capability to harm thousands of people? Unfortunately with research, that is always a possibility. However, that very same research could provide groundbreaking chemical developments that lead to the production of zero-emission energy, or perhaps the cure to cancer.

Are we building bombs and missiles at McGill that could be detonated at any moment? No, we are not. As one of the world’s leading research institutions, however, we most certainly are involved in complex research that acts along the frontier of modern day physics, medicine, and engineering.

Kathryn Kaspar

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Plumber’s Ledger or the Engineering Undergraduate Society of McGill University.

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