The Minerva Controversy; a Cautionary Tale

Ron Robin, New York University

The Minerva initiative has elicited several warnings of creeping contamination. Hugh Gusterson describes Minerva as a lethal vector not unlike the cancer-spreading tobacco industry’s contagion of health research. Katherine Lutz defines defense related funding as a malignant disease; “whole subfields have atrophied and others metastasized.” Priya Satia agrees that the separation of the delicate academic organism from a contagious state “is perhaps as crucial to national health as that between church and state.”

The resort to oncology and epidemiology reflects wide spread alarm concerning Minerva’s allegedly retrogressive siren song. Critics argue that the major disciplines targeted by Minerva’s profoundly nation-centric agenda have transcended their once collusive relationship with the nation state. Today the core disciplines of the social sciences espouse transnational values and a moral cosmopolitan. Hence, their defenders defy Minerva’s attempt to re-center the nation within the domain of knowledge production.

I seek here to provide a historical context for this particular critique of Minerva as striking at the heart of the academic body. I have accepted the challenge of this forum’s organizer, by offering a brief historical survey of reaction to Project Camelot as a historical reference point. I am wary of the dangers of such comparisons. The differences between the Camelot affair and the Minerva intiative are as significant as the similarities. Hence rather than comparing the two instances, I have limited my observation to reaction among academics to the two projects.

The significance of Camelot loomed particularly large after its nullification when a vocipherous post-mortem followed the revelation of its duplicitous funding arrangement. Predictably the Camelot affair engendered a debate within academia between Camelot participants and its detractors. The core debate focused on the relationship between academic research and the state, as well as the nature of objectivity in the social sciences.

For the purposes of this paper I shall touch briefly on Gabriel Almond’s critique of Camelot and the rejoinder of Camelot participant Jesse Bernard. While Almond and Bernard never locked horns formally over Camelot, they were definitely on different ends of the spectrum. Almond offered the most resonant indictment of the project, while Bernard was one of its major participant-defenders. For both of these individuals Camelot was merely foil for a more extensive examination of the role of social scientists at a crucial juncture of the relationship between the academy and state.

Stanford University’s Gabriel Almond posited Project Camelot as an example of the limitations of intellectual independence in the Warfare State. In a perfect world, he argued, the American academic community belonged first and foremost to a mostly invisible global college of like-minded intellectual souls. Academics had professional obligations to a borderless republic of sciences that at times collided with their affinity with the nation-state. The Camelot affair suggested that independence from the nation state — a seemingly indispensable prerequisite for competent knowledge production — was close to impossible. Federal funding — whether directly linked to agents of American expansionism, or indirectly linked thorough the fuzzy channels of federally funded agents– limited both overtly and covertly the scientific agenda. Those who did not accept federal funding were effaced from the map of knowledge production.

While conceding the existence of some outstanding examples of federally funded initiatives that had maintained their independence, Almond argued that they were exceptions to the rule. The main issue was not the source of government funding but, rather the monopolization of the creative process. Massive government support for the academic enterprise limited scientific creativity through centralization rather than through overt political censorship.

The problem, then, was not whether some sub agent of massive government funding espoused problematic political designs. The danger lay in the monolithic source of funding — always federal, despite its different channels. The autonomy of science hinged upon the existence of multiple non-governmental funders and sponsors. Academia, much like the mythical market place, thrived when guided by an invisible hand. The fall from grace exemplified by Project Camelot was not the result of politics. It was, instead, more of a psychological constraint. As was the case in the domain of economics, Almond argued that closed borders and gatekeepers — a by-product of restrictive defense related funding — was the antithesis of good science. Just as a thriving economy hinged upon open markets, science prospered within an open academic milieu.

The sociologist Jesse Bernard brushed aside those who criticized Camelot’s participants for selling their soul to the predatory designs of the state and its military establishment . As for the integrity of the social sciences, in general, Bernard had no patience for nostalgic reconstructions of a pristine academy. In fact, she argued that as far as the United States was concerned, an immaculate academic enterprise had never existed. The modern university was tied cheek and jowl to the nation state, and any suggestion to the contrary was either disingenuous or masterfully misinformed.

Bernard argued that the presence of competent social scientists embedded in military projects had an overtly benign effect as sociologists and their intellectual kin often offered alternatives to the military’s knee-jerk recourse to violence. Bernard argued that in modern conflicts research may actually contribute to conflict avoidance and resolution. Bernard and other key Camelot explained that “every example of violence in a conflict may be said to represent a failure in strategy. For when, or if, strategic solutions are available, strategy may supplant violence.”

In a manner of speaking Bernard appeared to be revising the core definition of the social sciences as a value free intellectual enterprise. Science without patronage was a utopian and, perhaps, unrealistic goal. Bernard was scornful of those who accused her of transgressing her commitment to objective social science. The analysis of social systems-whether produced in the illusory pristine groves of academe or within government funded projects such as Camelot– was an ideological rather than scientific enterprise. No measure of methodological sophistication could neutralize the political bias of the researcher.

Bernard argued against the dystopian view of a slavish academic enterprise laboring under the shadow of targeted government funding. In fact the few stabs at research carried out under the auspices of the short lived Camelot project offered a surprising spectrum of opinions. Once thrust together, Bernard recalled, Camelot’s intellectuals immediately engaged in preening their intellectual differences rather than supporting their funders.

A compilation of Camelot conference papers from 1965 suggests that, indeed, participants were anything but a band of dutiful soldiers. During the course of this conference the venerable James C. Coleman argued that the trajectory of social change in the nation state could be plotted mathematically because rational considerations of economic self interest were at the heart of change in the nation state. In what would become a foundational argument of modernization theory , Coleman offered a heurist model of a modern state governed by a “positive relationship between economic development,” and a robust and competitive democratic polity.

Amitai Etzioni and Fredric Du Bow offered an impassioned rebuttal. To begin with, they argued that Coleman’s mathematical model offered no leeway for including unquantifiable and non-economic phenomena. But the most intriguing part of their critique was their attack on what they saw as the underlying conservatism Coleman’s use of economic variables.

Coleman’s “island approach,” they argued, had artlessly ignored external, non-economic stimuli for change. They accused the hapless Coleman of positing outside influence as inherently intrusive and destructive,. He had dismissed external, non-economic stimuli as the infestation of pathological viruses into a the body politic, rather than legitimate variables in the political and social change of societies. By claiming that political change hinged upon economic variables, Coleman dismissed with a sleight of hand the moral, political and psychological dilemmas that were endemic to any form of sociological development.

Perhaps we should not read too much into this fascinating exchange. After all, the participants in this conference were probably unaware of the magnitude of deception that lay behind Camelot’s secretive funding arrangement. Moreover, one may ask whether a brief and long forgotten historical incident such as Camelot illuminates in any way our own complex concerns. Does history in any way offer insight into the Minerva initiative?

Most of the participants in this SSRC forum have voted with their feet. Despite exhortations from the organizers, the vast majority of participants have ignored Camelot, in particular, and historical reasoning, in general. I am painfully aware of the inherent limitations of historical analogies for extracting meaningful insight from the past. And yet, even a cursory comparison does elicit a few observations that may serve us well as we weigh the limitations and opportunities of military funding.

To begin with, the Coleman clash suggests immunity rather than widespread contagion among those who accepted Camelot patronage. An impressive spectrum of different political persuasions found their way into the Camelot debate. Despite the narrow intentions of military funders, they could not control the free wheeling nature of academic inquiry. Unruly participants glibly ignored the agenda; they spilled over into a variety of subject matter and elicited a myriad of responses. There was nothing very monolithic about the Camelot enterprise. Moreover, Camelot did not necessarily attract second rate scholars. Participants spanned the gamut from the mediocre to the movers and shakers.

The most pertinent observation from this cursory comparison of past and present appears to be the choice of metaphors for deciphering foundational concerns. In the Camelot case, the recourse to market metaphors suggests a willingness to debate both the dangers and the opportunities of defense-related funding. Rather than closing off debate by comparing Camelot to unmitigated evil, critics settled on the more benign images of the market place.

Even so, such economic analogies had distinct limitations. As is always the case with recurring metaphors and analogies, the economic terminology of the Camelot controversy was more revealing of their proponents’ ideological precepts than of the actual process of knowledge production. An unfettered market place of ideas sounded thrilling, but its existence was debatable then as it is now. Behind funding of any source — military or otherwise — there is always a hidden agenda of one kind or another. Moreover, the Camelot debate suggests that even in the academic equivalent of a restricted, intellectual economy, the market place of ideas was quite vibrant, with clashing paradigms jostling for attention despite or perhaps because of restrictive foils. Such heated exchanges suggest that despite contested patronage, Camelot offered capacious space for dissent, even to the point of critiquing its own fundamental underpinnings.

The choice of metaphors is equally enlightening in our own contemporary debate over Minerva. The epidemiological images used to explain the dangers of Minerva conjure up visions of a one way conduit: a malignant funding agent contaminating a healthy academic body. History suggests, however, a reciprocal process To the degree that there is contagion both sides are affected.

The Minerva recourse to cautionary tales of infection may, of course, signal a heightened awareness of the predatory nature of such episodes of tainted funding. Hence, any form of debate concerning by-products or hidden advantages or positive by products is inherently self-destructive and should be removed from the agenda by means of argument-ending metaphors. However, history appears to play no role in the reasoning of critics. Camelot, in particular, and historical instances of the military-intellectual complex, in general, are mentioned in passing only.

The most immediate conclusion regarding the Minerva debate appears to be the paucity of metaphors. Rather than deciphering foundational concerns, they obfuscate the complex relationship between sound academic scholarship and funders with ulterior motives. Defense related funding is problematic for a host of reasons. A cursory glance at military patronage — both past and present — suggests many existential dangers. Above and beyond the hazards of confounding research and politics, Minerva and other historical examples suggest that the military-intellectual complex has had other detrimental effects on the social sciences. The erosion of the theory-practice divide and an underlying statistical fatalism — where choice becomes a mathematical rather than an ethical dilemma — are two obvious examples of the pitfalls of military patronage. Together and separately- they offer serious reasons to be wary of military-academic collaborations.

When stripped of their debate-closing epidemiological analogies, the key concerns of the Minerva affair are far from Sui Generis. Much like Camelot we have still have the same recurring, nagging concerns: Does the presence of academic interlopers have a moderating effect on military doctrine? Will patronage — however loosely defined — lead to a self-selective bias of the research agenda? These are open-ended questions worthy of moral argumentation rather than philological closure. Such questions become moot and irrelevant when military funding is compared to a malignancy. One cannot debate the nuances of a life threatening invasion of the academic body.


1. Testimony by Gabriel Almond in U.S. Senate, Committee on Government Operations. Subcommittee on Government Research, “Hearings on Federal Support of International Social Science and Behavioral Research,” June-Jul 1966, 89th Cong., 2nd session.

2. Jessie Bernard, “Conflict as Research and Research as Conflict,” in Irving Louis Horowitz (ed.), The Rise and Fall of Project Camelot: Studies in the Relationship Between Social Science and Practical Politics (Cambridge, Mass., 1967)

3. James Coleman, “Game Models of Economic and Political Systems ,” in Samuel Klausner (ed.), The Study of Total Societies (New York, 1967), 30-44.

4. Amitai Etzioni and Fredric Du Bow, “Some workpoints for a Macrosociology,” in ibid., 147-62.

One Response to “Robin”

  1. Russell Zanca:

    Since Dr. Robin’s are the latest thoughtful comments on Minerva, I am posting my own thoughts in response to them, although I apologize for not dealing very directly with what he leaves us pondering. Rather, I wish to discuss why I decided to apply for Minerva funding.

    The bottom line for me, given my cerebral limitations and general academic mediocrity, was the possibility to carry out a long-term project (five years) that would provide the kind of funding that would be unthinkable were I to apply to SSRC, Wenner-Gren, Fulbright, Ford Foundation, NSF, etc. Moreover, I saw the opportunity to help assemble an international team of social scientists who could provide cross-cultural perspectives that would enrich my research goals centered on attitudes and perspectives.

    Personally, I have conducted ethnographic research in Eurasia for more than a decade, but I have never been able to help employ and engage with host scholars in that part of the world in any capacity that I considered just to their abilities and insights b/c of, you guessed it, the pathetic dollar amounts of funding available through the usual channels.

    Minerva, as I understand it from the ideas generated by Secretary Gates ( who holds a doctorate incidentally in Russian studies) was to help develop better aware cadres of both military and government personnel where issues such as Islam and Muslim societies are at stake. As you all know, the Minerva grants cover a much wider range of topics.

    If the position colleagues take, as suggested by Dr. Robin’s reading of others’ opining, is that anything associated with a direct source of OSD (office of the Secretary of Defense) funding places one on the proverbial slippery slope of aiding and abetting purveyors of cancer, then, yeah, there’ no sense in arguing, but, if you, as a person, have some pride and dignity in your own abilities and capacities (despite what I say above, I actually have some confidence in my own) to inform others and work independently, then I cannot see how one doesn’t take a chance on this.

    Dr. Robin cogently reminds readers to be aware of historical precedent with regard to the military or various branches of state government directly funding the social sciences. Of course, the intertwining is deep, but if we’re going to discuss Camelot, why not also discuss all of the anthropological research efforts and direct military involvement during the Second World War? Many pros and cons to those research accomplishments.

    One aspect of ethical consideration that I haven’t seen discussed robustly here is the involvement of our host colleagues and people whom we would interview, observe, etc. Working in Eurasia just after the collapse of the COld War, I will say that I have always found it to be extremely hard to gain any rapport with acquaintances, colleagues, and even friends had I not been as explicit as I could about who funded my research, and where, for example, does SSRC money come from. As conscientious anthropologists, we usually tell our students that we try not to involve ourselves directly with government agencies and funding b/c anthropologists usually work in countries where people have good reason to fear almost all authorities. This certainly has been my experience.

    Nevertheless working where I have my experiences were so mindblowing to me b/c I made the effort and the efforts were forced upon me to discuss all manner of political issues with Eurasians, including American foreign policy, 9/11, war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Islamism, democracy, etc. I have also tried to be as forthcoming as I could be with people about what I might write and who may read what I write, which is to say nothing about how my own thought may be construed or misconstrued.

    The major moral issues of Minerva Funding are the degree to which we compromise the anonymity and safety of consultants, the U. S. state’s agenda, and the scholars’ abilities to work with intellectual vigor and independence. It seems curious that certain voices in this debate already have the gifts of clairvoyance and prescience about the outcomes of these moral issues so that they seemingly answer these concerns definitively and absolutely. No need for any scientific skepticism here.

    Lastly, what of the idea of the scholar who feels that he has something to say to those in government that reflects a reality or embodies knowledge that he is convinced people in government know little to nothing about. It isn’t only anthropologists who are famous for back seat driving. Unfortunately, if one entertains pretensions to informing policy or having some role, large or small, in steering an aspect of government, then I think you have to be as direct as possible in giving it a direct and serious effort.

    Of course, I am sympathetic to those who despise militarism, military involvement in knowledge production, and any and all direct government involvement in social science. It just so happens that I don’t agree with you on all points.

    I’ll end with reference to my second paragraph: I am would be very excited to have the potential for the time and funding that enable me to work carefully and consistently with host Eurasian colleagues who will enrich the nature and understanding of our research questions and project design beyond what I and my other American colleagues could do on our own. We are mutually dependent on each other, and till this point their opinions, criticisms, and findings have made the proposal what it is, so if we receive the funding, we have to acknowledge that at least its planning has been very cross-cultural in scope.

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