Military Related Research at the University of Western Ontario

The following is a presentation delivered to the University of Western Ontario’s University Research Board on May 8, 2007. UWO is collaborating with General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada to assess ballistic materials for the manufacture of light armoured military vehicles at its London facility. General Dynamics, with revenues of some $19 billion and 70,000 employees, is amongst the world’s largest arms manufacturers, central to the US military industrial complex.

Thank you very much for inviting me. I will propose to you that the University Research Board undertake an ethics review of military related research at Western.

The context for our discussion is the contract between a research team in our Faculty of Engineers and General Dynamic Land Systems (GDLS) on Light Armored Vehicles LAVs). The issue of military research is of course much wider than this contract. However, I want to say a few words about it be-cause it illus-trates the nature of issues raised by military research. GDLS is a part of General Dynamics, a major player in the US military industrial complex. Although GDLS makes LAVs for a number of clients, including Canada, the major product line at the London plant are Strykers, the vast majority of which are for the US Army in Iraq. UWO research is thus improving the performance of a weapons system that is crucial in the US occupation of Iraq. Although we have not been able to see the contract with GDLS, neither Jeff Wood – the UWO Engineering Professor who is directing the research – nor his students, with whom we have discussed and debated the issue, have denied this assertion. The Stryker is a multipurpose vehicle. It is not just used for transporting troops and supplies – it is a gun platform, mounting a variety of cannon and missiles; it is used in aggressive patrols to provoke firefights with insurgents; in urban terrain it lays down a wall of fire that shreds houses on either side of the street; and, because of the relative silence of its engine, it is a preferred vehicle for snatch operations in which suspects are seized from their homes.

I need only briefly remind you of the nest of ethical issues that surround the war in Iraq: a war launched on the basis of mis- and disinformation; a war that many regard as having been undertaken in violation of international law; a war in which the torture of prisoners by the US at Abu Graib and Guantanamo has been documented and protested by international agencies; a war waged by the US with an incompetence that many regard as in itself immoral; and a war in which studies published in the eminent medical journal the Lancet put the civilian death toll at over half a million. I do not expect at all that we in this room will agree in our evaluation of these issues, but I do hope we agree that they are weighty enough to make us reflect on our University policies and practices around military research.

I will now proceed to make four general propositions about military related research, which I define as research either conducted directly for military agencies (Defense Departments. etc.), or for known military applications by private companies.

  1. Military related research raises special ethical issues.
  2. Academic freedom, though rightly cherished, is not an absolute.
  3. An ethical review for military related research is practical.
  4. Conducting such a review is part of the university’s obligation to its faculty, staff and students, and to the community at large.
    1. Military related research raises special ethical issues, warranting special processes for ethical review. All research can have indirect and unforeseen consequences. A geologist’s investigations may inadvertently lead to a mining company despoiling landscape. I research videogames, and students have claimed that I have destroyed their otherwise promising careers by introducing them to a time-wasting and addictive pastime. Research for the military, however, raises a specific issue because the function of armies is the exercise of deadly force. This is not the only thing that armies do, but it is the thing that only armies are meant to do. This means that a university researching for the military, or for a military contractor, must reckon on the possibility that this research will help kill someone. Moreover, and this is an important subset of the argument, this killing will not necessarily have been approved by our national government. In the case of General Dynamics, it is killing in a war that Canada did not join. In the case of other US defense contacts, it could be killing in Iran, Venezuela or Columbia, and, given the internationalized aspect of the arms trade, it is not impossible that in future UWO researchers could be working on weapons contracts for European, Chinese or Russian companies whose weapons would be used in Sudan, Chechnya or Tibet.
    2. Academic freedom though rightly cherished is not an absolute. It is, in practice, already balanced and limited against other considerations. The argument often made against my case is that it puts us on a `slippery slope’ towards constraining the autonomy and intellectual freedom of academic researchers. In fact, due to this Board’s own good work, we already live and work on that `slippery slope’, and our daily business as academics is based around a set of compromises on intellectual freedom. The URB, to its great credit, does not allow the torture or abuse of animal and human research subjects. We accept that the researcher is not autonomous, but answerable. Last week, I received a letter requiring me to complete an ethics review for a SSHRC research project that in essence involves asking a few people some questions about open source software and other computing applications. Irritating as it is, I accept that there are issues of safety, privacy and honesty that have to be respected. It is anomalous that there is no comparable ethics review process for making a weapon that will certainly be used to kill and maim in a dubious cause.
    3. An ethics board for military research is practical. The University Council on Research Ethics Involving Humans and the University Council on Animal Care, Animal Use Subcommittee, are current examples of large complex bodies with a wide range of expertise and community involvement, dealing with difficult issues. A similar body for military related projects could be composed of university experts in international law, human rights, and medical effects of weaponry. Any researcher negotiating a project for a military agency, or a known military application for a civilian agency, would have to submit the project to an ethics board review. Grey area cases, where the researcher is unsure about whether ethics review is required, could be adjudicated by the board itself. This board would be mandated to consider whether any given instance of military related research will contribute to armed force involvement in violations of international law or the abuse of human rights, and be empowered to reject the application if it does so. There should be a public component of the review board hearing, in which public interest groups on either side of the issue are invited to present their concerns, and the discussions in this section should be documented and made publicly available.
    4. The university has an obligation to conduct such reviews. This obligation is in part to the potential victims of the weaponry we help manufacture, even if they are half a planet away on the chaotic streets of Baghdad. However, it is also a responsibility to our own faculty and students. When we accept a company such as GDLS onto campus, we are accepting that its presence is a valuable and welcome contribution to an educational process. The university has a responsibility to ensure that this process does not, even if indirectly, implicate students, staff or faculty in violations of international law or offenses against human rights. It is not sufficient to say that this is an individual responsibility of the researcher or his or her assistants. Finding out about weapons systems, about where and how weapons are deployed, and evaluating controversies surrounding their use, is complex and time consuming. Individuals do not necessarily have the resources to make an informed decision. The University, as a knowledge institution, with amassed expertise in ethics, law, and international relations has exceptional resources in this respect. The graduate students today working on Strykers, or any other military related project, may in the future have to come to terms with the fact that in their youth they worked on supplying armaments for one of the first great humanitarian catastrophes of the twenty-first century. We have a responsibility to help prevent such nightmares, for the sake of both the perpetrators and the victims.

Paul Hamel, President of Science for Peace, spoke at a recent panel at UWO, “On the Ethics of Military Research in the University,” which took place on 12 March 2007.

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