Minerva: Unclipping the Owl’s Wings

Ronald R. Krebs, University of Minnesota

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ announcement last April of a new initiative, named Minerva, after the Roman goddess of war and wisdom and intended to cultivate a new relationship between the Defense Department and the academic social science disciplines, has been met with a hail of criticism. There is indeed much to criticize—from DoD’s truncated vision of “basic research,” which seems in the Broad Agency Announcement of the project to be more closely related to battlefield missions than one might have guessed, to Minerva’s funding priorities, which (as John Tirman has already discussed at length in his fine essay) are not only too narrowly framed but also arguably do not represent the most pressing national-security concerns, to the planned process for identifying worthy proposals (an issue on which the presidents of both the American Anthropological Association and the American Political Science Association have weighed in). However, the most vigorous and outspoken critics have opposed not merely the formulation of Minerva’s priorities or the process by which those priorities were generated and by which grants will be awarded. The danger, we are told, is that Minerva threatens to put social science in the service of power rather than to facilitate the speaking of truth to power (see Conor Gearty’s contribution, for example). The real problem with Minerva, in the words of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, is that it threatens to militarize the academy. The result, Hugh Gusterson suggests, will be to skew research on national security much as tobacco-industry funding skewed research on the health effects of smoking.

This is a serious concern in principle, but, speaking from the perspective of my own discipline of political science and especially my own subfield of international relations, the critics are not only too late, but they overestimate the impact of research funds on scholarship. Political scientists at the best US universities have not been bought, as some might crudely charge, nor have they been coopted through more subtle means. They have retained their capacity for critical thinking: they have not become mere parrots of the official government line. But the lure of affecting public policy, of being “relevant” to and bringing scholarly expertise to bear on debates of the moment, is powerful, and this has—both for good and for ill—shaped scholarly research agendas. Consequently the critics exaggerate Minerva’s impact. That said, Minerva remains wedded to a narrow conception of what constitutes policy relevance, and both scholarship and US national security would benefit from a broadening of the project’s field of vision.

Let us not adopt an idealized picture of the modern university. We might like to think of it as entirely free from state power and thus a safe refuge for critical thought. An attractive image, yet one at odds with the history of the American academy, whose remarkable growth and vitality were underwritten by the Cold War national-security state. The social sciences profited both indirectly from government support, as overhead costs from immense government grants for the natural and applied sciences subsidized the liberal arts, but also directly, though funding for area studies (see David Nugent’s essay). Yet the result was not to bind the academy so tightly to the bosom of state as to suffocate it. If academics often reproduced the “Cold War consensus” in the 1950s and beyond, universities also harbored many dissenters, and academics were among the first to raise questions publicly about the consensus’ core elements, facilitating its at-least partial unraveling in the wake of Vietnam. If university-based critics of the US government complain about the militarization of the academy, there is more than a little irony in the fact that those who decry government funding for perverting scholarship owe their jobs, at least indirectly, to such funding.

Let us also not adopt idealized images of how scholarly research agendas take shape. The critics seem to suggest that money is the root of all evil. Money can of course be corrupting, but for political scientists, especially in the subfield of international relations, “relevance” and “policy impact” proved awfully alluring even when, in the days after Vietnam, state research funding was relatively scarce. Indeed, in the leading subfield journal since its establishment in the mid-1970s, International Security, as well as its more recently founded competitor, Security Studies, articles routinely in their conclusions offer recommendations to at least generic state policymakers, and often explicitly to the makers of US foreign policy. Nor has it been uncommon for scholars publishing in these journals to so identify with the state that they portray international security as hinging on US national security, presuming thereby that what is good for the United States is good for the global order. However, such scholarship did not simply serve power: in fact it often spoke to power quite harshly. But it did generally speak to power in familiar terms and on subjects the authorities deemed important. This was certainly not entirely, or even mostly, a bad thing: scholars of international relations enriched debates on matters of contemporary concern. But a danger lurks if current policy-relevance becomes the primary criterion by which one judges the value of research.

“Presentism” in the field of international relations meant that the concerns of the field overlapped substantially with the concerns of the state. It is hardly accidental that security scholars focused on the 3:1 rule or strategic stability in the 1980s, nuclear proliferation and ethnic conflict in the 1990s, and terrorism after 2001. These were pressing concerns, on the public agenda and on the state’s agenda. But presentism also meant that social science, and specifically IR, always seemed to be a couple of steps behind. Prediction is of course more than can reasonably be asked of social science, but a less presentist discipline would presumably have been better positioned when the unexpected occurred—to make sense of those events and to advise unprepared policymakers—simply because it had spread its intellectual bets more widely and thus had a better chance of having a half-decent stock of knowledge. The irony then is that we scholars are perhaps least useful to the polity when we are most attuned to its needs of the moment. 

Critics of Minerva presume that scholars follow power and money. There is of course some truth in that, but disciplinary norms and priorities also vary in ways not fully predictable by patterns of funding. After Vietnam, sociology and anthropology and, to stretch the social sciences a bit, history largely abandoned the battlefield: few departments of sociology even have a military sociologist on staff, and military historians are nearly equally rare. Few sociologists or anthropologists acquire prestige by working in these subfields often considered by their colleagues retrograde, politically conservative, and perhaps morally questionable. It is hard to imagine that these now long-standing trends would reverse simply because the Department of Defense offered even reasonably substantial sums for attractive research projects. At the same time, political scientists remained deeply engaged with questions of security even after Vietnam, and service in government imparted little taint to scholars of international relations (many of whom jumped at the opportunity to witness policymaking from within and to participate in it, through International Affairs Fellowships sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations). In short, Minerva is unlikely radically to transform disciplinary priorities. Scholars who aspire to policy relevance would have launched research agendas on these questions in any event. Minerva can only reinforce and reproduce enduring disciplinary trends.  From the perspective of political science, insofar as Minerva proposes to devote (what are by disciplinary standards) meaningful sums to research on important questions, and insofar as it will provide further incentives to pursue research and employ concepts and categories that are already being employed, it is hard to see what harm it will do.

Additionally, let us also not exaggerate the scope of Minerva. The project is indeed worth discussing, if DoD in fact disburses between $50 million and $75 million over five years—an average of $10-15 million per year. That is hardly pocket change in the social sciences. But it is worth citing some figures to keep this in perspective. The National Science Foundation’s 2009 request for the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences was $233.5 million—around 20 times the size of Minerva. In 2007 the Ford Foundation disbursed some $656 million on various grants (basic research constituting only a portion of this impressive sum)—around 65 times the size of Minerva. Minerva’s proposed expenditures are on the order of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, which in 2007 disbursed about $12.5 million in fellowships and grants. A substantial sum then, but hardly one poised to radically reconfigure disciplinary priorities.

The implication of all this is that if Minerva is not quite a molehill, it is also not a mountain impeding passage to the scholarly promised land. This is of course not to say that Minerva “gets it right.” It does not. There is a remarkable disconnect between the wide-ranging introduction to the Broad Agency Announcement and the narrow formulation of the research priorities (that on China is perhaps the best illustration). If Secretary of Defense Gates really wants to bring academic expertise to bear, and I have no reason to doubt his sincerity, why not involve scholars themselves—including the most critical of scholars—in the process not just of generally advising the Defense Department but of formulating Minerva’s priorities? If distinguished social scientists were involved from the very start in defining Minerva’s call, this might go far in boosting other social scientists’ faith in Minerva, and thus might address, or at least alleviate, Hugh Gusterson’s concerns regarding the sorts and quality of the scholars who might select into or out of the program (a lesser concern, I would submit, in political science, which among the social sciences is likely to get the bulk of the funding). More important, involving social scientists from the start would almost certainly broaden Minerva, to the benefit of both social science and US national security. Decision-makers in DoD are not likely to be much concerned about the first, and they are likely to be skeptical with regard to the second—a skepticism to which I now turn.

DoD should be sponsoring research not only on matters that further US national security as DoD currently defines it, but on matters that are more loosely linked to the nation’s security. The Department of Defense, perhaps more than most government bureaucracies, has historically displayed little commitment to what Alexander George called “multiple advocacy,” and thus Minerva’s pluralistic inclinations should be welcomed and encouraged. But we can also be concerned about the thinness of DoD’s newfound embrace of pluralism. Multiple advocacy entails welcoming a wide range of perspectives, and Minerva, as presently formulated, unnecessarily truncates the research that DoD might support and presumably to which it may pay unusually close attention. Funders never like to see money wasted on projects they deem frivolous or outside their mandate. But it is worth recalling that the sums at play in Minerva are minuscule by DoD standards and not only when judged against major weapons platforms: the Office of Naval Research’s research budget in 2006 was $1.6 billion, of which $160 million was spent on various counterterrorism programs, and the ONR is just one of several DoD units that offer grants for basic research. Minerva currently focuses on what former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld nicely called “known unknowns.” Why not use some money to explore what Rumsfeld termed “unknown unknowns”? Billions have slipped through DoD’s fingers unaccounted for in Iraq. It can spend a fraction of those sums, and with far greater accountability, to expand its horizons and to take a chance on out-of-the-box ideas with uncertain payoff and of relatively indirect relevance to battlefield and strategic concerns. Especially in an uncertain security environment, in which the shape of future threats can be only dimly discerned, a well-funded Department of Defense should recognize that its interests and those of the state are best served by letting a thousand flowers bloom and not overly narrowing the field that supported scholarship will bring into view.

Minerva’s owl cannot fly with her wings so clipped.

One Response to “Krebs”

  1. Sean:

    Krebs article is an excellent example of the careful and thoughtful consideration that this topic deserves.

    I will agree that some reservations that have been expressed are indeed fair ones. It is important, for example, that research be vetted at least in-part by an independent party such as the NSF. And it is important, as Krebs suggests, that “out-of-the-box” research be funded that does not necessarily fall in line with the frame of reference or worldview that is immediately apparent to the Pentagon. So I do not take issue with many of the practical reservations that have been expressed, nor those that involve questions of academic freedom. These waters must be negotiated. For examples of DoD-funded research in other fields that are far from strictly narrowed one might take as some inspiration the well known and highly regarded Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (which, among other things, invented the internet that has so well liberated the realm of academia today). This organization is granted funding to perform advanced, far-thinking, and at times controversial research that is often unencumbered by the Pentagon’s most immediate needs. So a very rough model for the funding of projects in the social sciences does exist in parallel research organizations like DARPA, at least in spirit.

    There are those among the DoD who assert that engaging an academic environment and constituent polity that is so outwardly hostile towards it is simply not worth the trouble. To them I have made an effort to stress the highly diverse and variegated nature of academic culture. Whenever two very large institutions, whether they be the military or the university, come into contact with one another it is important that the players at the interface between the two gain a healthy and fairly in-depth understanding of the complex culture and nuances at work within both communities. For example, in the military it is probably a safe assumption that in the search for an individual to serve as a brigade advocate for sexual harassment one would not go immediately to the nearest EOD team. This is not to assert that they are any more likely to be the instigators of harassment, only that culturally – given the preponderance of high-testosterone risk-inclined individuals – they are presumably less sensitive to the issues surrounding harassment than those in other career fields. (Not that such assignment decisions don’t come about. For example I still find it surprising that as a junior military officer I, a prime example of europhallocentric heteronormativity to couch it in certain terms, was selected once as a command Equal Opportunity Officer).

    Likewise, an individual on the military side looking for individuals willing to engage in research need to be better aware of both the cultural nuances and histories surrounding the various fields and the actual purposes, objectives, and capabilities of those fields.

    On the matter of the former it is important, for example, to recognize and be at least nominally sympathetic to anthropology’s historical use as a tool of colonialism and the natural aversion that those in the field have to repeating those mistakes (as silly as such an assertion may seem to those not involved in culture studies). As such, in seeking to recruit individuals to perform military-funded research the anthropology department should probably not be one’s first stop. At the same time, these department’s loud and often antagonistic criticisms of the military and their funding should not lead one to conclude that this represents the view of all of academia, or even most of the social sciences. Unfortunately, until very recently these antagonistic forces have been far more effective in projecting their message to the public, and to those holding the government purse, than those who are proponents of military-sponsored social science research.

    The latter subject – awareness and understanding within the military of the actual functions and limits of the various fields within social science – is one that is particularly important to highlight. For example, there have been clear instances in the case of the Army’s Human Terrain System, where an individual with social science background but no specialization in the specific area of study (middle east, western and central asia, etc.) is brought on as a social science “expert.” Clearly limitations exist among the tools and knowledge base that a social scientist has at his or her disposal. And if one were to ask a random company or battalion commander what the difference was between an anthropologist, a sociologist, and a political scientist he probably wouldn’t be able present more than a very cursory explanation (unless he, perhaps, happened to study said fields while in college or graduate school). This lack of understanding perhaps stems from the so-called civil-military gap and, more specifically, the lack of substantive and commensal interactions between social scientists and the military. But it also stems at least in part from the frustrations that the military has been having in forming those relationships. Given the risks of being black-balled, social scientists in some of the fields that the military has deemed to be of interest won’t even discuss or consult with members of the military, never mind take on military-funded projects. It is too much of a risk. So, because of the unreceptive and hostile environment that has resulted from the strong, loud, and at times threatening (at least career-wise) repudiations by groups like the AAA the military is having a much harder time attracting qualified individuals to perform this work than I believe they otherwise would.

    This, in my view, needs to be better counterbalanced. My feeling is if there were a stronger showing of support and guidance for those in the field interested in performing this kind of research by those in the social science field with influence – both those of high academic stature and those with influence on the granting of tenure – younger but better qualified specialists would not be so afraid to stick their neck out and pursue the opportunities that projects like Minerva and HTS offer.

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