"Great minds for a great future" may be the University of Toronto's slogan, but it seems that not all great minds think alike. Some fear that the list of Harvard North's distinctions - Marshall McLuhan's former stomping grounds, home to the Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies - may soon include research partnerships with the U.S. Army.
A presentation by the Pentagon's International Technology Center Canada to applied science and engineering professors interested in collaborative research, scheduled for Monday, May 2, was postponed, seemingly because the meeting details were leaked to campus activists.
"Great minds, dead bodies" was a popular chant among those gathered outside the office of U of T's interim president, Frank Iacobucci, that morning. The group - 30 or so students, former students and faculty - had marched over from the nearby Sanford Fleming building, site of the cancelled presentation.
An Army wish list of technologies had also been leaked. Peppered with cheery terms like "hard kill portion," the 31-page document reads like a science fiction script pitch. Directed energy, "immunomodulation," kinetic energy missiles (missiles that, rather than exploding, simply rip through you), intelligent textiles, command-and-control software for Windows (what, they don't use Linux?), a perhaps undue focus on genomics and molecular biology, and something simply described as "technology to see through walls."
The military is seeking "autonomous" weaponry and vehicles - hardware that thinks for you.
Protestors sought a meeting with Iacobucci to discuss an ethical code for such research and disclosure of all existing research being done by U of T members. "Such minds are not great minds, but are cut off from life," says student Dhruv Jain. "The community demands that what goes on on this campus be beneficial to the whole planet."
A phone call to VP and provost Vivek Goel reveals that no policy exists, and none is planned. "If we were to try to write [a research code], we would get into quite a bit of difficulty," says Goel. "If people in the administration were to say, 'You can meet with this person but not that one,' they'd be imposing their values on faculty members."
Might it not be possible to discourage research into technologies used to impose one nation's view on another? Or at the very least to draw the line at bioweapons? "It would be very difficult to enunciate that," replies the pro-vost. "It's easy to say, at one extreme, we're not into WMDs and bioterrorism. But in the area of research on viruses, studies could prevent the next SARS or lead to the next biological weapon. You don't know where they're going."
"Great Minds For A Non-Specific And Possibly Pathogenic Future"? Doesn't have the same ring.
"It's unconscionable that we would invite the U.S. military - an institution that spends billions on killing people - onto the campus," says Paul Hamel, a member of Science for Peace and a faculty of medicine professor. "And it's disappointing that the admin has put its fur up and said, 'Academic freedom, the end.' What's the harm in having a dialogue?"
In a way, he answers his own question when he points out that there's a finite amount of grant money to go around. "It's very competitive," says Hamel. "A young person comes in, has five years to get grants, publish studies and get tenure or winds up out of the school."
Canadian researchers are funded by federal bodies the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). Over the last 20 years, their focus has shifted to "cooperative research," contracts between academics and corporations in which the academic is funded by the government.
Recently, there have been an increasing number of opportunities for military collaborations, thanks to a program of the American military called MURI (Multidisciplinary Research Program of the University Research Initiative). Canadian researchers are not eligible for MURI funding, but the federal agency Defence R&D Canada has begun a pilot project that allows Canadian academics to partner with American counterparts, and CIHR or NSERC funding will match the MURI funding.
The Pentagon encourages MURI contractors "to take advantage of this opportunity to collaborate and team with Canadian researchers at no additional cost to the DoD." Canadian tax dollars, American weapons.
This kind of "technology transfer" has long been a focus at U of T's office of research. Even today, its pamphlets make hay of its 1921 partnership with Connaught Laboratories, which gave the world insulin. However, the list of partnerships also includes weapons makers General Electric, General Motors, Honeywell, Bombardier and Texas Instruments.
"You'll meet people all the time whose work seems peripheral to military research but is actually deeply engaged in it," says Hamel. "Their studies aren't entitled New Ways To Kill People. If someone's working on some nanotechnology principles, especially for software, is that military or not? The military is certainly interested."
The office of research has ethical codes on how to conduct research, store chemicals and treat live research subjects, but none on ethical project aims. No document even asks individuals to reflect on how their work might be used.
"We have an education system that never really encourages us to consider ethics," says Hamel.
At a recent speaking engagement in Gwangju, Korea, Hamel experienced a different academic milieu. "It was a scientific conference, but they wanted to start it off with a presentation on ethics," he says with enthusiasm. "It's a shame that in the West we don't study these kinds of things." That may be our particular complacency.
It took the 1980 Gwangju Uprising, two weeks of popular protest put down by a military massacre, to have those discussions. May ethics save us from having to learn the hard way ourselves.