Senate passes much-debated research policy measures

Packed agenda includes preliminary 2010-2011 budget report

By Neale McDevitt

The March 24 sitting of Senate was long – at times lively – and touched upon cornerstone issues such as research, ethics and of course, finances.

The longest debate of the nearly four-hour session was reserved for the contentious issue of McGill’s Policy on the Conduct of Research – the third time the issue has been debated in Senate. Senator Richard Janda from the Faculty of Law moved to amend the wording of the section dealing with hazardous research. Janda proposed to expand the reach of the policy to include research with potentially harmful applications, in addition to research activities that presented “significant recognizable risk of physical injury to persons or property involving hazardous experiments or materials.”

The proposed change would require researchers to identify all potentially harmful aspects of research funded by grants or contracts. They would then be obliged to report these hazards to their Deans.

While military research wasn’t singled out in the wording of the amendment, Janda acknowledged that his concern over such research is what inspired him to draft the proposal.

During the ensuing debate, a number of senators said that even though they sympathized with Janda’s intent they could not support his motion because it was too vague. As it became clear the amendment would be voted down, Janda drew good-natured laughter when he ruefully stated “I’m always delighted to go down in flames.”

Senate went on to pass the unamended policy, to the dismay of some groups, such as Demilitarize McGill, which had campaigned to retain previous mentions of research funded by the military as requiring special handling.

Later, Provost Anthony Masi gave a preliminary report of the 2010-2011 budget, reiterating that, contrary to what some market sectors are experiencing, Canadian universities are still operating in very difficult financial times. “Things might look like they are [improving]” said Masi, “but we’re still in the middle of an economic downturn.”

For proof, one need look no further than the way sister institutions are faltering beneath budgetary burdens. Masi cited Université de Montréal’s nine-month freeze on new hires; University of Toronto’s reported $59-million deficit; and Queens’s recent announcement that 43 positions in Arts and Sciences will be cut.

“Every major university is experiencing problems,” said Masi, noting that within the past year McGill has postponed staff pay increases for six months and reduced contributions to some employee benefits.

Though difficult, the belt-tightening is paying dividends. As per the 2006 White Paper multi-year budgeting framework, in which the University has been running ever-diminishing annual deficits toward the goal of a balanced budget by 2011, Masi said McGill is right on track to hit the target of a $5-million deficit for the current fiscal year.

For Masi, there is no secret to achieving a balanced budget. “We absolutely need the co-operation of Deans, academic administrators and managerial staff to engage in the kind of discipline required to cut expenses… That means making hard choices.”

Having said that, Masi repeated a familiar message coming from the James Building during this period of economic uncertainty. “At McGill we want to protect jobs. We might not protect positions if they become vacant, but we want to protect the people holding jobs and not resort to pink slips.”

Certain areas have been targeted for growth, with the emphasis placed on increasing enrolment of PhD candidates and, to a lesser extent, Masters students.

Masi also stressed that further belt-tightening must not adversely affect the University’s core values. “The quality of our programs can never be compromised,” he said. “We are limited by the resources we have at our disposal, but we can achieve a lot with what we have.”