First 'Minerva' Grants Awarded

December 29, 2008

The first "Minerva" grants have been announced -- and they are going to respected scholars at leading universities for a range of topics that could inform U.S. military and diplomatic thinking. The grants also don't appear likely to end controversy over the program, although the change coming next month in the White House may lessen some concerns.

In some respects the first grants suggest success for a major initiative of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who proposed the program in April as a way for the Pentagon to support research in the social sciences that could be valuable to the military while also meeting standards of scholarship (peer review selection, no limits on publication or dissemination).

Getting a major grants program operating and making the first awards in a matter of months isn't necessarily the norm for federal agencies, so the turnaround time (set, in part, because it wasn't then expected that Gates would be in his position next January 21) is notable. Gates developed the plan with leaders of the Association of American Universities, and many AAU presidents praised Gates -- formerly president of Texas A&M University -- for reaching out to academe. But some scholars in the social sciences, especially in anthropology, raised questions about the program and whether it would exert an inappropriate influence over academic research priorities.

The first seven awards under Minerva were announced last week. Pentagon officials said that they expected a total of 16 academic institutions to participate in the research projects, and that three of those institutions would be from outside the United States. The recipients so far, and their announced subject areas, are:

  • Nazli Choucri of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for "Explorations in Cyber International Relations."
  • James Lindsay of the University of Texas at Austin for "Climate Change, State Stability, and Political Risk in Africa."
  • Patricia Lewis of the Monterey Institute of International Studies for "Iraq’s Wars with the US from the Iraqi Perspective: State Security, Weapons of Mass Destruction, Civil-Military Relations, Ethnic Conflict and Political Communication in Baathist Iraq."
  • David Matsumoto of San Francisco State University for "Emotion and Intergroup Relations."
  • Jacob Shapiro of Princeton University for "Terrorism Governance and Development."
  • Susan Shirk of the University of California at San Diego for "The Evolving Relationship Between Technology and National Security in China: Innovation, Defense Transformation, and China’s Place in the Global Technology Order."
  • Mark Woodward of Arizona State University for "Finding Allies for the War of Words: Mapping the Diffusion and Influence of Counter-Radical Muslim Discourse."

Matsumoto, a psychology professor, said via e-mail that he was aware of the debates about whether it was wise to seek Pentagon support for research, but suggested that some of the criticisms may be oversimplified.

"I have many of the same concerns with these types of funding sources as do many academics," he said. "I happen to fall on the side of getting involved in order to make things better somehow. Others happen to fall on the side of not wanting to be a part of it. That's their choice."

He added: "Any research, whether funded or not by the government or any other agency, can be put to beneficial or destructive uses; seems to me that one way to make sure one's research is used to benefit the common good is to be actively participating in the process. I choose to do that. and I believe that there are many many people with whom I have come to know and work in the DoD that have good hearts and the same common goals, despite whatever appearances or the media make of them."

Shapiro, an assistant professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton, and a former Naval officer, said he viewed the military-academic ties as positive and overdue. "I think there is a destructive divide in our country between the military and the academy," he said. Secretary Gates "had the right idea in trying to set something up to remedy that."

The military "doesn't get the best ideas of the academy" because of the divide, Shapiro said. But he added that the divide hurts scholarship, too. "There is incredible data and information generated by the military that can help us understand all sorts of phenomena and this divide cuts off the academy" from that information, he said. As to concerns about Minerva grants' impact on those being studied, Shapiro said he viewed the protection rules as being "substantially stricter" than comparable rules used by universities. (Background on Shapiro's research may be found here.)

Hugh Gusterson is a professor at George Mason University and founding member of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, which opposes anthropologists’ participation in counterinsurgency efforts and which has outlined concerns about Minerva funding. Gusterson said that he didn't know details about the work being supported in the first round of grants and so couldn't comment specifically on the awards.

But he stressed that the concerns about the program were never that good grant proposals wouldn't be found. And he said that only some of the concerns may vanish with the Bush administration.

"There are two separate concerns. One has to do with the militarization of the discipline itself and the other has to do with contributing to a project of imperial intervention abroad," Gusterson said. He said he hopes Obama will move U.S. troops out of Iraq and not get bogged down in Afghanistan. If that happens, Gusterson said, "I think a lot of anthropologists will feel better about doing this kind of work. Instead of becoming part of a century-long imperium in the Middle East, anthropologists are part of a strategy for giving a country back to the people there."

But even if that happens, he said, "I would be concerned that a humane discipline is in danger of becoming a discipline that rents itself out." Further, he said that he is "as concerned as ever" that when some social scientists in the United States take money from the military, it undercuts the credibility of social scientists who work -- without U.S. military funds -- in parts of the world where such ties would make it impossible to do work and could in some cases be dangerous. "We're going to have anthropologists suspected of working for the CIA," he said.

Since such concerns were first raised, the Pentagon has moved to involve the National Science Foundation -- which has a long history of supporting social science research -- in Minerva, but critics say that the fact remains that this program is supported by the military.

"The review process is corrupted by the Department of Defense having a role in this," said Catherine Lutz, a professor of anthropology at Brown University. Concern about military influence on non-military aspects of American society "way predates Bush," Lutz noted.

Lutz stressed that she didn't know details of the work being supported by Minerva, that the research topics may be excellent, and that she wouldn't be raising concerns about grants from the NSF or foundations to support such studies. "The military is being asked to do things that civilian sectors should be doing," she said. "The risk is that people go where the money is and the money is not neutral."

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