Do We Need to Demilitarize McGill? An Interview with Demilitarize McGill

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Earlier this semester Demilitarize McGill approached the Plumber’s Ledger, looking to reach out to McGill’s engineering community. So, we sat down and had a little chat about what Demilitarize is, research ethics, stickering, their desire to involve engineering students, and more.

Plumber’s Ledger: What is Demilitarize McGill?

Demilitarize McGill: We’re a group of students, past students and community members from around McGill who seek to expose and interrupt the complicity of the university in war and colonialist violence by ending military research at McGill. We do that in various ways, we have stickers, we’ve filed access to information requests, we’ve discussed with people, and we have a website. That’s broadly who we are.

PL: When was Demilitarize founded? Looking online it seems like you were around for a while, disappeared, and have started back up again.

DM: There’s actually a history of organizing against military research at McGill that goes back to the 1980s, when students occupied the VP Research office in 1988 winning the first university policy actually restricting military research. Between 2008 and 2010 there was a group that was the first take on the name Demilitarize McGill. They campaigned for stricter university policy on military research because the existing one was quite weak. That process actually ended not only with their proposals for policy reforms being rejected but with the policy that had been won in 1988 being abolished as well by the university. We are a new group that started in fall of 2012 and we decided that we would take on the name Demilitarize McGill, that had been used by the 2009 group, and we followed their line of work, essentially.

PL: So you reformed in 2012?

DM: Less reformed and more started a new group and kind of discovered the history of Demilitarize McGill and took on the name. It’s not really like reforming so as much as a new group.

PL: What was Demilitarize’s first activity as a new group?

DM: Our first activity wasn’t so much a public activity; it was to put together information on military research. One of our first activities with the broader McGill community was a few walking tours, promoted though facebook and our website. We gathered a group of 20 people and walked around campus, talking about what we know so far about military research.

PL: How is DM organized?

DM: We aim to organize non-hierarchically and on a basis of consensus. So, we don’t have a leader, we don’t have official positions, we don’t have spokespeople. We do have regular meetings and are open to new people joining us at any time.

PL: What kind of military research is currently going on at McGill?

DM: Well there is applied research, which has been covered a lot. We’ve been talking about the Shockwave Physics Group as well as the Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) lab. The Shockwave Physics Group in mechanical engineering has a long history of doing research on thermobaric explosives as well as fuel-air bombs. This research is ongoing today with the financial support of the Canadian military. Most recently the thermobaric explosives were used by the Syrian regime against civilians. Thermobaric explosives have also been used by the United States, going back to Vietnam and more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The CFD lab, also in the mechanical engineering department, is directed by Wagdi Habashi, who is also the founder and CEO of a company called Newmerical Technologies which operates out of a McGill office. The lab and the company together develop advanced flight simulation software, which the company sells to military aerospace manufacturers including the makers of drones used by the US military.

We also want to broaden the perspective and make it known that there is research being done that relates to systems of knowledge. There’s political science and grad student research funded by the military and there are also whole programs such as the Center for International Peace and Security Studies; a program between the Université de Montréal and McGill that is directly funded by the Security and Defense Forum of the Canadian Department of National Defense.

To add to that, non-technological research is also being done through the Institute of Air and Space Law. They’ve had a 5-year, $500,000 fellowship with Boeing, a major aerospace manufacturer who has very strong connections with the U.S Air Force. We’re exploring the ways in which those connections influence the ways in which the IASL functions.

PL: Do you consider and try to differentiate the civilian, meaning the non-military, aspects of research like this?

DM: We understand what you’re saying but what we’re trying to get at is more understanding their economic linkage. There is also planning in the research, even if it is applied for civil purposes it’s mainly developed by military funds and also applied in those ways. When you cut down those two links, if you only get the civil research, then it’s completely different.

PL: Even if you cut down those ties, could you conceive of civil research, with a civilian application, being applied to the military after the fact?

DM: It’s important to ask why is this research being done and that’s often the same question as what makes this research profitable for the researchers and the people around them. We believe the answer to that question with respect to the CFD lab and the Shockwave Physics Group is that it’s profitable because it benefits the military and the people whose job it is to find better and more effective ways of killing people.

The CFD Lab’s research is not being done for civilian purposes of protecting commercial planes, the planes we fly on are not in danger of crashing due to insufficient simulation technology. This is a profitable field because attack drones that the US military wants to use to conduct targeted killings require these technological advances to be sustainable. That’s why money is being poured into this research by the company CAE which is receiving $100million from the US Air Force to train attack done pilots. So the research would not look anything like what it looks like now, if the purpose were civil, or the product of a neutral kind of inquiry.

To add to this point, it is important to stress these things being used for military purposes is not a hypothetical thing, it’s an actual thing because these people are doing applied research. In Shockwave physics, you have people doing research in collaboration with Canadian Air Force Labs, which was located on a military base where there is bomb testing done. In the case of CFD Lab, you have papers being published that are specifically saying how you can improve the technology on this specific model of drone. One of the papers that was done was for the British air force program to evaluate which attack drone they should buy. This is a paper published by CFD lab researchers in collaboration with Northrop Grumman; a company that manufactures 1 model of drone and it was the evaluation of this kind of drone that was being done.

PL: What is McGill’s current policy on military research?

DM: Right now, there is no specific policy regarding military research, there is of course a policy regarding research ethics, and again this is not a coincidence. There is a persistent denial in implementing changes to that policy to have military research abolished, or better regulating research that could have harmful results.

PL: But isn’t what is considered harmful kind of subjective?

DM: Very subjective because to a large extent, it is self-enforced. So when any research at McGill is getting an external grant, they have to submit a questionnaire to the Office of Sponsored Research. This asks all sorts of questions, one of which is if they are receiving funding from a government military agency, and if they say yes, they are then asked a secondary question which basically says, could this research have harmful consequences? If they say yes, they have to submit a statement, but there is no official ethical review board, as you would have for human subject research or animal subject research. There is no process like that.

PL: So do you see better regulation or better inspection of third party funding for this type of research, as a possible solution?

DM: I think that one technique that McGill is actually quite proficient at has been using multiple sources of funding and intermediate sources of funding to get around possible problems arising from direct military research funding. McGill has made the choice that it will not receive direct funding from the US military for research. It deems that too controversial. Instead, the money simply goes through an intermediary such as CAE in the case of the CFD lab, and by virtue of that, can have the same effect insofar as allowing the needs of the military to guide research priorities, but without the superficial appearance of a problematic relationship. Because of that, we’re skeptical as to the potential of policies with respect to research funding actually having an important impact on military research here.

PL: What is Demilitarize’s stance on military research at other institutions and outside of McGill?

DM: Our field of action is really McGill, for students here, it’s where we can most effectively start these discussions and take action. That said we’re against the military use of force to advance imperialist interests generally. So we’re against militaries achieving technological advances that they require to do that as efficiently as possible. We’re against military research anywhere, but that’s a position we have in theory, the position in practice is opposing military research at McGill, because that’s where we can act.

PL: Do you think that it would be worse if this research were being done by a private company, or do you think it’s better that this research be done in a university setting.

DM: I think probably not, the fundamental point is the consequences of the research, what it represents, and what it ends up doing, and that’s going to be a bad thing no matter where it is. Although the research is being done at a university not a private company, there are a lot of corporate partnerships.

PL: Is the research publicly available?

DM: Some is, there are some scientific papers and conference proceedings that we are able to access. Other things are not. For example specific technology developed for a customer, is not published.

PL: In general, are the members of Demilitarize McGill aware of this research before applying and enrolling?

DM: Generally no, and we think that’s because it’s not something the university advertises wisely, with good reason.

PL: Has DM considered making it more well known to potential students before they enroll, or reaching out in a similar aspect? Would you recommend that students attend McGill?

DM: As a group we don’t exist to dictate where someone should go, but if finding out about McGill’s military research dissuades someone from coming, that’s totally their decision. It’s not one of our main goals, we’re not working on it specifically, and it’s important to note that the research does go on at other universities.

PL: Have their been complaints about the promotion techniques that Demilitarize uses? The stickers especially come to mind.

DM: We’ve had a couple; you could call them complaints, as to the stickers specifically.

We think it’s important to be conscious of the context, from which our information campaigns arise. The McGill administration is going to extraordinary lengths to stop information for circulating and being made public, such as their attempts to block our access to information requests.

The stickers make sense to us as an autonomous means by which we can reach a large number of people with relatively few resources, and we think they have been successful. Pretty much everyone we have talked to on campus has seen our stickers and conversations that may have otherwise not happened, have taken place.
Also, since we’re not hierarchically based we don’t dictate to people how they should sticker or where they should sticker or whom they should give stickers to. Basically we hand out stickers to anyone who’s interested and from there it’s not under our control.

PL: People have suggested the stickers are a form of vandalism. why not seek alternate routes, something like putting posters on poster boards?

DM: Our initial thought is that it would be very hard for Demilitarize to put up posters without having them taken down by the administration. Stickers are not meant to be used as vandalism, they are just a more permanent way of having that information available without it being able to be just taken down. We wonder if other groups around campus who use stickers are also being criticized.

PL: Have posters been taken down by the administration? Is that an issue?

DM: One thing that did happen was that an upper administrator threatened to cancel her appearance on a minor speaking panel where DM was to be present. It’s not really the administration that would take down the posters, more just anyone who doesn’t want this to be talked about.

As for stickers as vandalism, the stickers don’t impair the functionality of any objects on campus. There are also different concepts of property and public space at play, if that is the kind of allegations people are going to make. We aren’t the only group on campus that stickers. We wonder if other groups on campus are being criticized for having stickers up. To be clear, we don’t think that any group should be, but if we are, and others aren’t, why is that?

We think that stickers informing people about unsettling research that the university is doing and how to get involved in opposing that are certainly a lot less objectionable than many other things that you’ll see written in bathroom stalls. I mean there is no organized campaign against people who write insulting things in bathroom stalls. Also, quite a bit less objectionable than the legitimate uses of space that the university is responsible for from the commercialization and advertisements everywhere to the actual use of the university for military purposes.

PL: Is there anyone in your group that has a technical background.

DM: We actually have a pretty diverse membership of students. We have students in arts, law, physics, and Math. I think we have a few members in engineering. We don’t have any members in higher levels of engineering. That being said, I don’t think that those of us not in engineering are unqualified to speak on these things. Most of us have spent quite a long time researching these things and reading these papers that we might not completely understand, but that we’re getting better at, and we’re not unqualified to talk about it. However, as has been stated already, we do totally welcome engineering students, and totally understand that they would play a unique role in helping us to get a more technical perspective on these things. A big part of what we do is talk about economic linkages and the social effects of these technologies, which I would say, lots of our members are quite qualified to talk about.

PL: What’s Demilitarizes ultimate goal? If you could accomplish it all this year, what would it be?

DM: We have many different goal and of course the ultimate goals is to completely get rid of the military presence on campus. But a lot of work as well is trying to inform people of all the links between universities and the military, make people understand that the weapons being used have their roots in our communities and our universities. And by not doing anything, I guess that we are directly or indirectly contributing to the use of those weapons

PL: If this research were to stop, what would this mean for a student in engineering? Would it make for a decrease in the quality of resources or make their education less valuable? What would you say to someone who is concerned about that?

DM: Underlying those concerns we should recognize is a specific choice of a way to think about education as preparation for a role in the economy as it is structured and maintaining it the way that it is, and maintaining the organization of society as it is. Resources that are available because they help the military kill people are not resources we are going to defend continuing to exist. That said, our goal is not to harm the prospects of engineering students. We want engineering students involved in what we are doing. They don’t want their education to benefit the goals or war and imperialism and can play an important role by virtue of where they are, what they study, what they know.

Just because it is the easiest thing to keep receiving the funding, doesn’t make it the right thing, and I think that a lot of people would agree that being in higher education is not about doing what is easiest. It is about challenging yourself and I think that an important way in which people can and maybe should challenge themselves in an academic setting is how can they do research that is going to have positive outcomes as opposed to developing bombs or drones.

If you’re interested in learning more about Demilitarize McGill, find them on facebook, or check out their website: demilitarizemcgill.com. If you have your own questions, or want to simply get in touch, send them an email at demilitarizemcgillnow@gmail.com.

Ellsworth Bell

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