Pentagon Provides Details on 'Minerva'

May 12, 2008

When Robert M. Gates, the secretary of defense, announced plans for the Minerva Consortia last month, he surprised many social scientists. Gates proposed the creation of a series of university-based consortiums to support research on questions of importance to the military, but said that the research would be unclassified and would not be subject to political litmus tests.

The plans won immediate applause from university presidents and set off immediate concerns from some social scientists, who worried about the impact of Pentagon support on setting research priorities, and who wanted more information about the program. The Pentagon released more details on the plan last week in a briefing for selected bloggers, a transcript of which the Defense Department has released.

The briefing -- by Thomas Mahnken, deputy assistant secretary of defense for policy planning -- covered issues of funding (Mahnken said to expect millions, not tens of millions) and philosophy, on such topics as the importance of the research being discussed and military-academic relations. The briefing also provided an opportunity for the Pentagon to stress its willingness to use funds in the program to support research involving institutions and people outside the United States.

Some of the bloggers invited to participate appeared to make a supportive audience for the Pentagon. The first questioner started his question by saying, in part, "we welcome the secretary's proposal." But the answers still went beyond previous information released publicly about Minerva.

That question came from David Betz, who teaches at King's College of the University of London and is part of the Kings of War blog by war studies faculty members there. Betz noted that his colleagues do similar work for Britain's government and praised the Pentagon for appearing to want to take an international approach. While some scholars in the United States have worried that consortiums might be restricted to American scholars, Mahnken specifically said that would not be the case. "I think this is an opportunity for broad collaboration throughout the academic community, and that includes ... not just American institutions," he said.

On the question of funding, Mahnken said that the Pentagon is talking modestly. "We are talking millions of dollars," he said. "...We're probably not talking tens of million dollars but, you know one of the virtues of social science research as opposed to ... the physical science research, is it's relatively inexpensive." He added that "this is an area where, you know, two or three million dollars goes a long way." The first awards could be made by the end of this calendar year, he said, and will likely be designed for multi-year grants.

Mahnken said that the Pentagon was open to the idea of supporting consortiums that already exist, and that proposals would not require new entities to be created. He cited Chinese studies as an example of an area in which consortiums exist, but where "the interest there is getting them ... focused on ... military issues and S&T issues."

An area where Mahnken said that new consortiums may be needed is the study of political Islam, where he said "you've got individual scholars who are scattered across the country" and "the interest there is really bringing together and networking those folks." Mahnken stressed that sound systems would be used to pick the best researchers and teams, and that he envisioned the consortiums also involving graduate students.

Asked about "cultural differences" between academe and the military, Mahnken joked, "Oh boy. How much time do we have?"

But he noted that there are plenty of people at the Pentagon with extensive academic ties -- with Secretary Gates being the most notable example in that he moved to his current position from the presidency of Texas A&M University. Mahnken, a Ph.D. who has taught at Johns Hopkins University, said he too was familiar with academic culture. He said that Gates and others want to see more of an ROTC presence on campuses. But he also said that culture change was needed for faculty members in certain fields.

Mahnken said that when he was growing up, both of his parents worked at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which receives a lot of money for research from the Navy and the National Science Foundation. If you are an academic working in oceanography and many other science fields, "government contracts and government funding is just part of what you do," Mahnken said.

"For various reasons, you know, that's not the case when it comes to social science," Mahnken said. "And as a result, we find ourselves at a disadvantage ... understanding our world and understanding some of the challenges we face. You know, we're able to call upon the full talents of the nation when it comes to ... physical science and engineering. We're not able to do that when it comes to some of these vitally important topics."

Some scholarly groups have criticized current levels of Pentagon involvement with academe. The American Anthropological Association's board, for example, has questioned the ethics of the Human Terrain System, in which scholars have been recruited to help military units manage local populations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The association has noted that such involvement may compromise the ability of social scientists to obtain informed consent from those they study or to "do no harm" to those they study.

Mahnken dismissed such criticism. "I would differentiate between pushback from a professional society and the attitude of the members of a profession," he said, adding that while he is a member of several professional societies, they "don't speak for me." He added that the membership of societies "is much more diverse" than statements criticizing the Pentagon would suggest. He added that he sees "a 9/11 generation" of graduate students who want to do the kind of work Minerva would support.

Reaction to the details that Mahnken discussed has been mixed. The Danger Room blog noted in a posting "Pentagon's Academic Outreach: Big Talk, Little Cash," that many academics are disappointed by the relatively small sums being talked about. That was based in part on "Minerva on the Cheap," posted at COMOPS Journal.

More philosophically, Savage Minds (which noted that it wasn't invited to the briefing) said that Mahnken's references to archives of materials on Saddam Hussein's regime and jihadist regimes -- documents Mahnken said the Pentagon wants studied -- raised questions about who has access to those documents for research right now.

The Network of Concerned Anthropologists is a group asking scholars not to help in the "war on terror," and the organization has already issued a statement of concerns about Minerva. Hugh Gusterson, one of the organizers of the network and a professor of anthropology and sociology at George Mason University, said in an interview Sunday that he found Mahnken's comments about professional societies in academe to be "offensive and ill informed."

Gusterson noted that the ethics code of the anthropology association is decades old and that statements on the Human Terrain System reflect specific ways that participation would violate the code, specifically with regard to informed consent. He noted as well that the leaders of the association are elected, and that in recent years, rank and file members at the association meetings have been pushing for tougher stances against military ties. Most anthropologists take ethics issues seriously, Gusterson said, so the Pentagon has no basis to say that the association's statements don't represent the discipline.

The real problem, Gusterson said, is that the Pentagon is talking to "a small minority of anthropologists" who work with the military. If those anthropologists are seen as representing the discipline and its values, Gusterson said, Minerva will be poorly designed, but "those are the anthropologists who have the Pentagon's ear."

Gusterson said he agreed "150 percent" on the need for more research -- even research supported by the government -- on such topics as the relationship between religious belief and terrorist violence. But he questioned whether the Pentagon is the right source for such an effort.

During the briefing, Mahnken was asked about this as he said that he would be happy to see other agencies doing this work as well, but that such interest isn't "an argument against us doing it." The Pentagon feels it has "a deficit" in knowledge in these areas and so is appropriately trying to support and coordinate the work being done in academe.

Gusterson called that argument "disingenuous" in that the Pentagon's leaders could certainly encourage other agencies to support this work. "If you want to support this research, give the money to the National Science Foundation. They know how to do peer review to support social science. They know how to find the best proposals so they get funded," he said. "They could do this immediately."

The problem, Gusterson said, is that Mahnken's statements suggest that the Pentagon believes that a small group of social scientists, those who work with the Pentagon, reflect their disciplines and their fields' ethical views. "The anthropologists they know are way out to one extreme of the discipline. The Pentagon has no clue who to go to," he said.

"I am afraid they will turn over the peer review process to this group of militarized anthropologists," he said. "You'll have people with an ideological agenda who are not seen as representing their discipline handing out money to people to do ideologically distorted and shoddy research."

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