The Perils of Pentagon Funding for Anthropology and the Other Social Sciences

Catherine Lutz, The Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University

This spring, the US Department of Defense announced an initiative to put up to $18 million annually toward social science research on issues of “national security.”  It identified anthropology as a key discipline to be recruited to this work.  Dubbed the Minerva Research Initiative, after the Roman’s virgin goddess of both warriors and wisdom, the specific projects the Pentagon has called for social scientists to address include “Chinese military and technology research,” “studies of terrorist organization and ideologies,” “future ideological trends within Islam” with an eye to “solving terrorism challenges,” and studying the Hussein regime (using documents taken from Iraq, under government protest, after the invasion).

The Pentagon has brought the National Science Foundation in to help evaluate some grant applications, at least in part in response to a letter from the American Anthropological Association (AAA) requesting that the program be moved out of the Pentagon and into the National Science Foundation (NSF) peer review system.  A two track system now has the Pentagon calling for and reviewing some proposals directly and independently, and NSF reviewing others, although with the Pentagon having the power to decide on some review panel members.

The Minerva money is a tiny fraction of the US military’s huge annual research and development budget ($85 billion in 2009): by way of comparison, the total NSF budget is $5 billion and the federal budget for the National Institute of Health is $29 billion for the same period).  But the money remains significant for several reasons:  it is a large amount relative to other grant money in anthropology (the largest funder of anthropological research worldwide, Wenner-Gren, disperses $5 million a year); it represents an important attempt to garner ideological acceptance among anthropologists for doing military research; much larger sums of military funding could be forthcoming in the future; and this money could shape and misshape anthropology in significant ways, as has happened with other disciplines that have been the recipients of Pentagon largesse.  While it is certainly not new for the Pentagon to fund social science (Simpson 1998, Price 2008), this is the largest such systematic initiative in many years.  And while the Pentagon is not the only funder that shapes anthropological research in ways that can devolve to the detriment of the people we study, it is the one that most assuredly and deeply harms because it pursues a firmly national interest and it does so as the specialist in using violence to make things happen.

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Many university officials have applauded Minerva’s launch. Some of the arguments made for it hinge on the nationalist notion that it is all to the good for social scientists to apply their methodological skills and substantive knowledge in service to the state, particularly in a time of war.   Other arguments, more liberal and Enlightenment rationalist, assume that Minerva will allow social scientists to provide an important corrective to the ideologically driven and ill-informed policies, large and small, that have sent US soldiers and marines into the deserts and mountains of the Middle East and Southwest Asia.  They suggest that social science can provide the facts and perspectives that will let cooler heads and less pugnacious policies prevail.  These arguments pose social scientists, and especially anthropologists, as potential allies for progressive forces within the Pentagon who would like to develop a more multilateral, culturally informed set of foreign policies and military practices, and who would rather use cultural persuasion (in the form, for example, of military delivered development projects, psychological operations, or military diplomacy) than violence (the military institutional euphemism now being “kinetic force”) in pursuing their mission wherever possible.

The flaws in these arguments and the dangers and costs of Minerva to social science, to anthropology, and to the university, however, are many.  The Network of Concerned Anthropologists has already described some of these on its website, two of which I would like to highlight. The first is that the Pentagon frames the questions to be asked and decides which independently framed questions are sensible or important, and does both these things within the constraints of what C. Wright Mills years ago called the military definition of reality. This entails seeing the world as a series of threats to be dealt with, sorting people into enemies and allies, and focusing on the use or threat of force – physical (missile and machine gun fire), mental (psychological operations, public relations campaigns), and financial (enforcement of sanctions, bribery of local actors, arms deals).

The Pentagon’s research wish list does not correspond to the lists most anthropologists would construct of the central problems, security or otherwise, facing the people of the United States or the world.  Their alternative lists would include global warming, inequality, disease, job loss, hunger, refugees, racism, and sexual violence.  The lists might contain some problems generated by the Pentagon itself, like the human toll of the current wars or the huge deficit created by military spending.  Moreover, Minerva’s choice of research topics constitutes the problem that needs to be addressed, not the questions that need to be answered.  For example, over the last several decades, the Pentagon and media in tandem have constructed the Islamic terrorist and China as the primary adversary replacements for the Soviet Union.  To link Islam and violence – even while suggesting that the research question is about the trends in militancy and violence within the diverse religious traditions of Islam — is to already engage in an act of political aggression.  While the NSF rewording of these questions suggests that other religious traditions, not just Islam, are proper subjects for investigation, the intention of the Pentagon research buyer has been made clear.  To ask about Chinese military strength rather than, say, astronomic levels of corruption, waste and fraud within the Pentagon – a much more potent threat even to the US’ ability to shape events militarily – is to further the massive distortions that exist in national priorities, to help justify future military budgets, and to contribute to increased levels of insecurity.

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Some argue that the social sciences can help by reframing the questions being asked, and will seek funding to try and do so.  Success in the grantsmanship process, however, will almost certainly go to those scholars ready to accept the Pentagon’s basic frame even as they might argue that the problem is a bit more complex than the military or its civilian leadership realize.  In a call for proposals on Chinese military and technology, how likely is it that someone will succeed by proposing to study whether or how the current massive US military build-up on Guam has prompted higher levels of Chinese military spending or to trace the threats of land loss, colonial disorders, or military toxins to the people of Guam?  And if someone did do so, how likely is it that this research will have the effect of convincing any US administration that a military withdrawal from Guam is the best course of action, or even that funds should be diverted from jet fuel for training flights to clean up of jet fuel in the water supply?   Such research into the political economy and epidemiology of health on Guam would serve the cause of human security in a way the DoD program surely will not.

Minerva poses another risk to anthropology: based on the history of other disciplines fed by Pentagon funds over the long era of Permanent War, we know that whole fields, not just individual researchers, are militarized in the process.  This is amply on view in those natural science fields that have been the recipients of decades of such research funds. That funding has fundamentally reshaped many of those fields in the direction of knowledge that is of use in war making.  Within the fields of physics, engineering, applied math, and computer science, for example, whole subfields have atrophied and other metastasized in response to where the Pentagon has applied its money (e.g., Leslie 1993).  So has emerged the centrality and importance of nuclear physics within its field and of interrogation-relevant areas like hypnosis within psychology (Lutz 1997), while environmental science has relatively languished (despite the fact that the Pentagon is the world’s largest single institutional contributor to greenhouse gases).  In fact, the DoD announcement of Minerva specifically articulates its goal of training students to work in the national security area (as the program is pegged to US national security alone, it is hard to imagine how this will play out in non-US universities), and the NSF/DoD announcement says that Minerva grantees will be required to meet in Washington D.C., no doubt under DoD supervision and tutelage, in order “to develop into a community of security science researchers.”

The same effect should be anticipated in anthropology.  Knowledge of local political systems in oil-producing regions or socioemotional vulnerabilities in the individuals of competitor nations or studies of Islam would come to be disproportionately represented in some departments.  Faculty with Pentagon funding would have a leg up in recruiting graduate students, curricula would replace some existing courses or even programs with others on anthropology and security, and university administrators would reward, as they now do, those who bring in the money, public attention, and political connections that funding on high status subjects provides.  Other, more pressing research and researchers will undergo a brain drain.   The spaces for critique of war as a social practice will continue to contract. Universities’ responses to the question of whether to participate in the Minerva project are still in formation. The first reply has sometimes been that those who disagree with the politics of the projects simply “need not apply” for grants, and/or that those who accept DoD funding will be “doing a favor” to their colleagues by freeing up other monies for them. These rationales are the predictable and unfortunate outcome of three things: the free marketization of the university over the last several decades; the emergence of an incentive system that puts grants at the centre of the university’s reason for being; and a process of cultural militarization that has fundamentally normalized war making.  University administrators have certainly already welcomed the influx of funds – however small the amounts this year, they can hope for much more, perhaps even the kind of support that they have counted on for many decades in the sciences, to help underwrite their electricity bills and professors’ salaries, and to produce publications that plump their NRC ratings (Sahlins 2008).

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However much Minerva may be tinkered with – to address concerns about secrecy or peer review – the problem will remain the Pentagon’s mission itself.  Its publicists notwithstanding, the institution academics would advise and assist is not a social service provider, a development agency, or even a force for defending the US against attack.  It is the specialist in violence, to be applied as commanded by civilian and military elites in interventions abroad and in frequent contravention of national and international law.  To do this work is to lend the university’s legitimacy – and the notion that it makes anything it touches smarter – to the military’s projects and the $1.2 trillion dollars spent on them each year rather than on human needs.
The seductions of this kind of research will be many, however: to imagine one can speak truth to power (when that power chooses and funds you); to imagine one can rub shoulders in and move the mission of the most powerful institution in the world (when historical examples show researchers’ work co-opted, ignored, or used to support pre-existing decisions made on other grounds); or to imagine that one will “help others” around the world by straightening out those who run the military (as the Pentagon publicists suggest). These seductions are all the stronger after two decades of the culture wars, which have made progressive and independent critique of the military or other powerful institutions an object of hate speech and mockery.
However strong the seductions of conducting scholarly work with the false promise of making progressive change (even if one might make some like-minded friends within the military), it unfortunately needs pointing out that Minerva is a profoundly nationalist project (even if open to foreign scholars), and anthropology, by long tradition and widespread agreement, is an internationalist one.  The seductions of technical or managerial rationalism (Gusterson 2002) are strong as well, but it is the larger institutional imperatives and incentive structures and the political economy of military spending that will overdetermine the uses to which any anthropological or other social science research is put.

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Like naming practices around the globe, the Pentagon’s christening of Minerva is telling of much else.  What we could call “classics-washing” is a tried and true method of suggesting any project’s nobility, timelessness, and beauty.  So it was that Dick Cheney named his Iraq invasion plans the Anabasis Project, after the march of Greek mercenaries through Persia and Mesopotamia.  The neocons of the Bush administration and, for decades, the military academies have found the Roman Empire good to think with as they contemplate what the US can accomplish in the world.  To join this project is to lend scholarship’s good name to a similarly grandiose, dangerous, and irrelevant project of building a better way to make war and maintain US military dominance of the globe.

Note: The Minerva grant specification is available at

The NSF/DoD version is at


Gusterson, Hugh.  2002.  The McNamara complex. Anthropological Quarterly 75(1): 171-177.

Leslie, Stuart W. 1993. The cold war and American science: The military-industrial-academic complex at MIT and Stanford. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lutz, Catherine. 1997.  “The psychological ethic and the spirit of containment.” Public Culture 9(2): 135-59.

Price, David.  2008.  Anthropological intelligence: The deployment and neglect of American anthropology in the Second World War.  Durham, NC:  Duke University Press.

Sahlins, Marshall.  2008.  “The conflicts of the faculty.”  Anthropology News 49(1): 5-6.

Simpson, Christopher.  1998.  Universities and empire: Money and politics in the social sciences during the cold war.  New York:  The New Press.

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