Pentagon Shift on 'Minerva'

Pentagon officials are talking with the National Science Foundation about the NSF playing a major role in the peer review for a new program to promote social science research on topics that relate to key issues in U.S. foreign policy.

May 28, 2008

Pentagon officials are talking with the National Science Foundation about the NSF playing a major role in the peer review for a new program to promote social science research on topics that relate to key issues in U.S. foreign policy.

A senior Defense Department official who asked for anonymity told Inside Higher Ed about the discussions when contacted to respond to a letter being sent by the American Anthropological Association to the Bush administration and key Congressional leaders calling for the new program to be shifted from the Pentagon to another agency, such as the NSF (or the National Institutes of Health or National Endowment for the Humanities). The official stressed that no agreements had been worked out yet, but that it was likely that the new program would include a close relationship with the NSF, especially in regard to peer review. The anthropology group and many scholars have questioned the Pentagon's ability to run a credible peer review process for the program, so the NSF role could shift the debate over the new DOD initiative, the Minerva Consortia.

The official said that another route under consideration for providing a peer review framework for Minerva was the Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative, which is supported through the military services. One likely outcome, the official said, was that both programs would be involved.

While NSF officials have previously said that the agency was open to playing a role in Minerva, the Pentagon has previously defended the idea that this would be a Defense Department program.

Minerva represents a major Pentagon effort to support academic research and to establish closer ties to academe. Several of the ground rules for Minerva have been praised by university presidents as policies that make it possible for universities to participate. News that Minerva projects could include non-Americans, could include work critical of the U.S. government and would not be classified have cheered many. But much of the work envisioned in the program might well be done by anthropologists, many of whom have been dubious of Minerva from the start.

Conducting research of the sort envisioned by Gates is of "paramount importance," the letter released by the American Anthropological said. "However, we are deeply concerned that funding such research through the Pentagon may pose a potential conflict of interest and undermine the practices of peer review that play such a vital role in maintaining the integrity of research in social science disciplines," said the letter, which was sent formally by Setha Low, president of the association and a professor of anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

While some university lobbyists worked with Pentagon officials quietly for some time before the idea was announced in April, anthropology leaders say that they were not consulted. Notably, the Pentagon's interest in working with social scientists comes at a time that anthropologists and scholars in other disciplines have been debating how they can distance themselves from work with the military that they feel violates scholarly ethical codes that bar research that may harm those being studied.

The Minerva concept reflects an endorsement by Secretary Gates of something many academics have been saying for years: U.S. policy should be better informed by knowledge of the cultures and societies all over the world, including those regions that do not embrace the United States. As outlined by Gates, consortia involving university researchers, selected through peer review, would conduct research on such topics as the relationships between religious beliefs and terrorism, the ideology and record of Iraq's government, religious studies generally, Chinese military and technology studies, and other topics. (Pentagon officials provided more details in a briefing for selected bloggers a few weeks ago.)

As word of Minerva has spread, some anthropologists have issued detailed critiques. The Network of Concerned Anthropologists, which has been organizing scholars to pledge not to help the military in its "war on terror," released an analysis questioning the possible impact of military support on the direction of anthropological research, and expressed fears of turning the university into "an instrument rather than a critic of war-making."

The letter from the American Anthropological Association is more narrow in focus, and stresses issues of peer review and, to a lesser extent, the skepticism anthropologists have of the Pentagon's ability to set up a quality peer-review system.

"Rigorous, balanced and objective peer review is the bedrock of success and productive programs that sponsor academic research. Agencies such as NSF, NIH, and NEH have decades of experience building an infrastructure of respected peer reviewers.... Lacking the kind of infrastructure for evaluating anthropological research that one find at these other agencies, we are concerned that the Department of Defense would turn for assistance in developing a selection process to those who are not intimately familiar with the rigorous standards of our disciplines. To lay the groundwork for the type of academic research involved in Project Minerva, it is critical than association like the AAA be consulted on its creation, structure and implementation," the letter says.

The letter continues: "It is also likely, given the history of our discipline, that many anthropologists who would have a great deal to contribute to a national conversation about terrorism and violence would apply for funding from the National Science Foundation, as it is a familiar informational and research interlocutor to study such topics, but will be unfamiliar with any such processes for the Department of Defense."

The anthropology association released its letter without knowing of the Pentagon-NSF talks on the program. Damon Dozier, director of public affairs at the association, said he was "very pleased" to hear that the Defense Department was talking about a science foundation role in the program. Dozier said, however, that the Pentagon has yet to consult the anthropology association on the program. He added that the association couldn't be certain about MInerva until seeing details about a possible NSF tie.

Barry Toiv, vice president for public affairs of the Association of American Universities, which has worked with the Pentagon on Minerva, said that "we think that working with NSF is a good approach, and we're glad DOD is seriously considering it."

The senior Defense Department who agreed to discuss Minerva without his name attached said he thought that when the program is finalized, it will attract strong support from scholars, and predicted that "world class" professors would be involved. But he added that he wasn't certain that the Pentagon would worry about satisfying disciplinary associations. "We certainly need qualified anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, historians, psychologists," he said. "We need recognized experts in these fields. The relevant disciplines need to be involved. Whether professoional associations per se should have a role, I'm less sure."

Hugh Gusterson, one of the organizers of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists and a professor of anthropology and sociology at George Mason University, said that an NSF role in peer review “would go a long way to alleviating many of my concerns, but we’d have to wait and see how it would work out." Gusterson stressed that scholars would need to see details on the Pentagon-NSF relationship. Still, he said that there is no doubt that the NSF has a ready group of anthropologists to use in peer review, and a system to collect evaluations and manage grants.

In addition, Gusterson noted that for some anthropologists, any program supported by the Pentagon would be problematic, and Gusterson said he worried that Pentagon control of the program could diminish its effectiveness. Gusterson noted that if the Pentagon is sincere about attracting scholars with a range of views, it should want scholars involved who believe, for example, that U.S. foreign policy is one factor in support for terrorism abroad. Scholars with those views are likely to be those who avoid any Pentagon connections, Gusterson said, so keeping the program in any way at the Pentagon, "could end up truncating the discussion."


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