A Pentagon Olive Branch to Academe
In a speech in which he called for the Pentagon to embrace intellectuals, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has proposed a significant expansion of the type of research supported by the Pentagon -- moving beyond weapons and technology, to social science and humanities work that could better inform public policy.
Gates outlined plans for what is being called the Minerva Consortia in a closed meeting with presidents of leading research universities, who were gathered in Washington Monday for a meeting of the Association of American Universities. In his talk he specifically pledged that these new research programs -- which have been in the planning stages for months, in part through discussions with AAU leaders -- would be designed in ways that would respect academic values.
"Let me be clear that the key principle of all components of the Minerva Consortia will be complete openness and rigid adherence to academic freedom and integrity. There will be no room for 'sensitive but unclassified,' or other such restrictions in this project," Gates said. "We are interested in furthering our knowledge of these issues and in soliciting diverse points of view -- regardless of whether those views are critical of the department’s efforts. Too many mistakes have been made over the years because our government and military did not understand -- or even seek to understand -- the countries or cultures we were dealing with."
Such language was welcomed by the university presidents, who said that it could point the way to a new relationship for academe with the Pentagon. At the same time, the plans were questioned by scholars who view ties to the Pentagon as posing ethical or other dangers to themselves or their research subjects. They said that while Gates may be using language that reflects academic values, they believe there are inherent conflicts between their work and Pentagon support.
Gates was president of Texas A&M University before becoming defense secretary and has close ties to university presidents and an awareness of academic culture that those present at the meeting said were reflected in both the proposal and its positive reception. David W. Leebron, president of Rice University, called Gates "an extraordinary person" and said that the Pentagon leader understands that the United States depends "on a lot of learning and knowledge that is not in science and technology" and that Gates was committed to the "flexibility and openness" needed to make programs with universities thrive.
Gates framed the ideas for Minerva in the history of university contributions to the defense of the United States during the Cold War. "As was the case at that time, the country is again trying to come to terms with new threats to national security. Rather than one single entity -- the Soviet Union -- and one single animating ideology -- communism -- we are instead facing challenges from multiple sources: a new, more malignant form of terrorism inspired by jihadist extremism, ethnic strife, disease, poverty, climate change, failed and failing states, resurgent powers, and so on. The contours of the international arena are much more complex than at any time during the Cold War," he said.
While Gates said that projects for Minerva might well change over time, he suggested four possible areas:
- Chinese military and technology studies. Gates noted that China publishes much information about its own military in a way that it is available, but only in China. He would like to see the creation of "a real -- or virtual -- archive of documents" created by universities and their researchers.
- Iraqi and terrorist perspectives. Gates said that there is much research to be done on materials captured in recent years. He said that he believes many documents "contain strategic, ideological, and practical considerations -- and day-to-day debate -- that I think would be of great interest to scholars."
- Religious studies. "There is little doubt that eventual success in the conflict against jihadist extremism will depend less on the results of individual military engagements and more on the overall ideological climate within the world of Islam. Understanding how this climate is likely to evolve over time, and what factors -- including U.S. actions -- will affect it thus becomes one of the most significant intellectual challenge we face. It has been a long time since religious issues have had to be addressed in a strategic context. A research program along these lines could be an important contribution to the intellectual foundation on which we base a national strategy in coming years and decades," Gates said.
- New disciplines. Gates noted that game theory and Kremlinology came out of Cold War research and suggested that other fields may need to be created now. "In the last few years, we have learned that the challenges facing the world require a much broader conception and application of national power than just military prowess," Gates said. "The government and the Department of Defense need to engage additional intellectual disciplines – such as history, anthropology, sociology, and evolutionary psychology.
While Gates stressed the history of military-academic ties and praised such recent efforts as the work of James Wright, president of Dartmouth College, to help wounded veterans get into and pay for college, he also noted controversial issues. Many colleges would prefer not to have the military on campus, in many cases citing the open discrimination of the armed forces against gay people -- a stance in conflict with many colleges' anti-bias regulations.
Without touching on the reasons many campuses oppose having military recruiters on campus, Gates called for high level support for ROTC and recruiting. "We must move past whatever antagonism to ROTC still exists and demonstrate respect at the highest levels for those who choose to serve -- whether that is by attending ROTC commissioning ceremonies, actively promoting the military as a career option, or giving full support to military recruiters on campus regardless of whether that access is tied to federal funding."
Gates also defended the Human Terrain System, in which anthropologists and other scholars have served with military units in Iraq and Afghanistan, advising them on local cultures and societies. The program has been condemned by the American Anthropological Association and cited by many anthropologists as an example of the way ties to the military can corrupt scholarship and the trust that anthropologists must build with the people they study. Gates, however, praised the program.
"The Human Terrain program ... is still in its infancy and has attendant growing pains," he said. "But early results indicate that it is leading to alternative thinking -- coming up with job-training programs for widows, or inviting local power-brokers to bless a mosque restored with coalition funds. These kinds of actions are the key to long-term success, but they are not always intuitive in a military establishment that has long put a premium on firepower and technology. In fact, the net effect of these efforts is often less violence across the board, with fewer hardships and casualties among civilians as a result. One commander in Afghanistan said last year that after working with a Human Terrain Team, the number of armed strikes he had to make declined more than 60 percent."
The Gates talk did not mention specific budget figures or a timetable for Minerva. But Robert M. Berdahl, president of the AAU, said that the Pentagon is "determined to do this right and make this effective." Berdahl said that Defense Department officials have held a series of meetings with AAU leaders, including a group of provosts, to talk about how such a program might be created.
As a result of those discussions, Berdahl said, Pentagon officials are committed to the work being non-classified, open source and without political litmus tests. "This isn't intended to write reports for the Pentagon, but to develop expertise," he said. "This is about scholarship."
Berdahl said he was "extraordinarily excited" by the project, and by the spirit of collaboration between the Pentagon and the university leaders in planning Minerva. While the military has long supported very specific types of research, Berdahl said that the new program was "in many ways a departure" in the breadth and openness envisioned for the research to be supported.
At the same time, Berdahl -- a former chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley -- said that "any program like this is going to have critics."
Hugh Gusterson may be among them. A professor of anthropology and sociology at George Mason University, he is among the organizers of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, which has been encouraging scholars to pledge not to "engage in research and other activities that contribute to counter-insurgency operations in Iraq or in related theaters in the 'war on terror.'"
Gusterson -- like other social scientists who have been critical of recent military work with academics -- only learned of the Gates speech from a call for this article, and had not been able to study it. He said he was pleased to see any such work be unclassified and with the pledge that there would not be political limits on what people could study. But he said that those conditions did not eliminate many concerns about the program.
"It's clear to me that academics and other sectors of American society need to be thinking about these questions," such as those raised by Gates, he said. "But the question is what kind of conversation we will have. I know from having served on review panels and selection committees that you can have an announcement of a program that sounds wonderful, but what matters is which people get appointed to referee proposals and decide who gets the money. You could have mid-level Pentagon officers with a narrow conception of who should get the money, and you could end up with mediocre, uninventive results."
Even with a good selection process, he said, accepting money from the Pentagon can create all kinds of difficulties for scholars in the field. Gusterson noted that he did research in the 1990s on Russian nuclear scientists, exploring their feelings on their work, on secrecy, their family lives and so forth. Gusterson's research was supported by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and he shared that information with his research subjects. "I wouldn't have even bothered if the Pentagon was funding me. It would have been pointless," he said. "Many Russians assumed I was working for U.S. intelligence -- it was the biggest problem in the research."
The bottom line question, Gusterson said, is: "Why is it that so many worthy research projects end up being funded through the Pentagon. Why is the Pentagon taking up so much of our discursive space?"
Similarly, Catherine Lutz, a professor of anthropology at Brown University, said that the impact of military funding is significant and troubling. Fields like physics, she said, have been shaped since World War II by military priorities "and we don't need the same thing in the social sciences."
That Gates would praise the Human Terrain System project, she said, suggests that the Pentagon does not understand real research but wants "faux social science." While Lutz acknowledged that some people view the military as protecting citizens from violence, she said that she takes another view, based on history, and that makes her deeply skeptical of this program. "I think there is a very important role for the university in tackling the problems of contemporary life," she said. "But it is wrong to have an institution that specializes in the use of force soliciting research from universities whose job it is to question that institution at its very core."
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