Unveiling Minerva

Hugh Gusterson, George Mason University

Let’s try a thought experiment.

Imagine you are a researcher in epidemiology. You are interested in finding out whether restrictions on smoking in bars and restaurants, recently adopted by a number of cities, have had any effect on the incidence of respiratory ailments probably connected to secondhand smoke. To do this, you need funding. The best source of such funding is the National Institutes of Health (NIH), but their grant competitions are extremely competitive, and only the very best proposals get funded. On the other hand, the tobacco industry is now offering funding for research in this area. A lot of funding. In the past the tobacco industry has been accused of skewing research it funds and even of suppressing research when its results are inconvenient. But the industry says it has learned from its past mistakes and will apply proper academic standards to its adjudication of grant proposals; it will not interfere in the conduct of the research or in the circulation of its results.

In this situation many epidemiologists will have predictable concerns about the tobacco money. Some, ideologically repulsed by the tobacco industry, will simply refuse to consider its funding on principle, no matter what the stated terms. Others, more pragmatic, will fret that, despite industry protestations, there will be hidden strings attached to the funding, and they will worry that, even if they are given a completely free hand to do exactly the same research they would have done if funded by NIH, nevertheless colleagues will discount their research results when they see the funding source. They may even worry that they will be perceived as industry shills, and that their long term reputation, and thus their ability to get the gold standard grants from NIH and other federal agencies, will be damaged.

The upshot: the best researchers, and the researchers most opposed to the tobacco industry, will not apply for its funding. Those who do apply will either be those with fewer alternative funding options – i.e. the less capable researchers – or those predisposed to sympathize with the tobacco industry. Given this, it is a fair assumption that tobacco-funded research in this area will be of lower quality than similar research funded by federal agencies.

I fear this thought experiment offers all too good an analogue to the Minerva situation. The Pentagon has announced that as much as $75 million will be given to social science researchers over the next five years under the Minerva program. Conceding that it made mistakes in the 1960s when it launched Project Camelot, a similar initiative to enlist social scientists in thinking about ways to head off Third World insurgencies, Pentagon leaders have emphasized that Minerva research will not be classified and have claimed that the program will have strong academic bona fides.

I have argued elsewhere (thebulletin.org, foreignpolicy.com) that there will be an inevitable self-selection bias in the field of applicants for Minerva funding in a way that our thought experiment illuminates. For example, in anthropology, my own discipline, Minerva is likely to be given a wide berth by scholars who do not like the Pentagon, scholars who have other funding options, and scholars who are afraid that accepting Pentagon funding will damage their reputation with colleagues or make interlocutors in the field less likely to trust them. Expressing similar concerns, the President of the American Anthropological Association, Setha Low, wrote to the Office of Management and Budget (http://www.aaanet.org/issues/policy-advocacy/upload/Minerva-Letter.pdf) suggesting that the Minerva initiative be moved from the Pentagon to a civilian funding agency such as NSF whose oversight is more likely to be trusted by a broad range of social science researchers.

The announcement in August that Minerva would allocate funds to be disbursed by NSF for three years, starting with $8 million for 2009, suggested at first glance that these warnings had been heeded. However, as I have argued elsewhere (http://thebulletin.org/print/web-edition/columnists/hugh-gusterson/project-minerva-revisited), the NSF program, which bears the Defense Department logo, is being used to give Minerva a cosmetic makeover rather than to make Minerva genuinely independent of the military. The majority of Minerva funding, disbursed outside the NSF process, will still be controlled directly by the Pentagon. Meanwhile the Department of Defense will pick some members of the NSF review panels, and will insist that recipients of NSF Minerva funding attend collective meetings with Defense Department officials seeking to develop a social sciences brains trust. Many social scientists will not be eager to participate in such a program. Foremost among them will be those who are skeptical of U.S. military interventions abroad and those, regardless of their politics, who rely on relations of trust with foreigners in order to conduct their research.

Given this, it would seem to be a no-brainer to cut Minerva loose, genuinely loose, from the Defense Department. Many of the best academic minds in the country, from all ends of the political spectrum, would apply to a well funded program, run through a foundation or a civilian agency, to fund research on the roots of terrorism, on the relation of Islam, peace and violence, and on new ways of thinking about security if this program were not tainted by association with the government agency that is currently fighting two wars in the Middle East. If the amount of money allocated to Minerva were instead funneled through, say, Wenner-Gren, the SSRC, and a differently structured NSF process, it could leverage a remarkable scholarly and public debate about these issues.

Given that allowing such research to be funded by a civilian agency through a genuinely independent process would surely produce much better research, we must ask why the Pentagon is so opposed to this. Part of the answer surely lies in bureaucratic politics: government agencies do not freely give away part of their budget (even a tiny morsel, as this is for a Pentagon whose budget next year will be over $500 billion). However, I believe the real answer to this question lies in the NSF’s stated goal in its Minerva announcement “to develop [Defense's] social and human science intellectual capital in order to enhance its ability to address future challenges.” The proximate goal of Minerva is to fund worthy academic research on issues related to the Iraq War, the emerging geopolitical struggle with China and the “war on terror.” But Secretary of Defense Gates has spoken of the “war on terror” as a war that will stretch across generations, and of the need to develop a long-range capability to prevail in that war. His longer term goal is to develop a cadre of social scientists, particularly in anthropology, who are tied to the military and its projects. In a way that promises to undo the implosion of Project Camelot during the Vietnam War, thus helping to “kick the Vietnam syndrome,” these social scientists will be on call for consultations, they will be drawn into the training of soldiers and intelligence officers, they will serve as adjudicators of research proposals for others, and they will train students and direct them to careers as military social scientists. While such an outcome might seem like a victory for the military, it really will not be good for anyone: the taxpayers will not have got the research they might have got; the military will hear what it wants to but not what it needs to; and in a society where thought is already too deeply militarized, academic spaces of dissent from the prevailing military mindset will be further eroded as researchers talk themselves into believing that telling the military how to do kinder, gentler, more informed military occupations represents critical thinking.

One Response to “Gusterson”

  1. Dylan:

    thank you Hugh for the clarity you provide. Im most concerned about this erosion of dissent you point out in the last paragraph. Its not about the morality of the argument anymore. Yes, im against the anthropologists working with the military and the future world that will take us toward. I believe one has to make a principled stand against the militarised world we live and the vast amounts of money we spend over other more socially important projects like, health, education and alleviating inequality and poverty. Those as clear issues of maintaining the status quo or trying to change the world.

    But i reach this conclusion because of my personal ethos and moral compass. im against counterinsurgency and every war ive heard about in my lifetime (the last 30yrs). Ethically i dont agree with them.

    However, you raise important considerations, issues based on inductive reasoning, that we must test and clarify. If this DoD funding initiative is going to mean many of the best researchers as defined by their peers and the various professional hoops one must jump through will not apply for its funding. And those who do apply will be the less capable researchers – “or those predisposed to sympathize” with the military. and its “a fair assumption…research in this area will be of lower quality than similar research funded by federal agencies” is this not a tangible, data driven objection we must make asap; because the way it is shaping up the military is going to do whatever it wants and to hell with those that dont agree with their direction.

    maybe my language is over zealous but that’s the difficulty im having when such initiatives threaten not just my professional morals but the sort of world we will leave to our children. Im fed up living in a world ruled by guns, bombs and whoever spends more on the military. Its insane. And it seeps into everything. As Latour makes the point elsewhere the War never ended. It never ended because those with power and privilege dont want it to. This is another pillar in extending war as our way of life.

    Not even sure i should leave my thoughts here…

    ANyways the read was informative thanks.

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