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News Analysis: Pentagon's New Social-Science Program Stirs Old Anxieties

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As always, the question is, "Who owns the researcher?"

By David Glenn

In September 1965, not long after news reports spotlighted a controversial Pentagon-sponsored program to study social conflict in South America, the Social Science Research Council played host to a meeting on overseas research.

Feelings were raw. Opposition to the Vietnam War was mounting, and many scholars worried that the Pentagon's research on conflict and counterinsurgency would bring all overseas researchers under suspicion as agents of American military power. According to Seymour J. Deitchman's The Best-Laid Schemes: A Tale of Social Research and Bureaucracy (MIT Press, 1976), a central theme of that 1965 meeting was whether, if the Pentagon really required research on such topics, it "couldn't be obtained by some independent, 'objective' agency, such as the National Science Foundation."

Forty-three years later, in the midst of a different war, the same anxiety persists.

In April, Robert M. Gates, the secretary of defense, announced the Minerva Research Initiative, a Pentagon-financed, university-based social-science program whose purpose is to study the Chinese military, cultural dynamics in the Islamic world, and other topics of interest to the military.

In some quarters, the plan was coolly received. The president of the American Anthropological Association released a statement urging that such research be funded not by the Pentagon, but by agencies with "decades of experience in building an infrastructure of respected peer reviewers"â€"like the National Science Foundation.

Greater Openness

This time around, however, the Pentagon is taking steps to assuage academic fears. Working through the Association of American Universities, Defense Department officials consulted with certain university presidents before the Minerva project was announced. The program's creators have emphasized that all of Minerva's research will be open and unclassified, in contrast to certain Vietnam-era projects. And on Monday afternoon, the Pentagon signed an agreement that will facilitate collaborative social-science projects with the National Science Foundation, possibly including a joint solicitation for research proposals on topics that fall under Minerva's umbrella. The anthropologists' wish has been at least partly granted.

The Minerva program's projected budgetâ€"$50-million over a five-year periodâ€"is small compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars that scholars in the hard sciences receive from the Pentagon each year. But despite its modest scale, the program's supporters hope that it will play a tangible role in rebuilding trust between social scientists and the military. In his speech announcing Minerva, Mr. Gates referred to "academics who felt used and disenchanted after Vietnam, and troops who felt abandoned and unfairly criticized by academia during the same time."

In an interview last month, Thomas G. Mahnken, the Defense Department's deputy assistant secretary for policy planning, said that he understands why some scholars might prefer that this research be financed by different agencies. But research on Minerva's particular topics, he said, simply isn't being conducted elsewhere.

"The secretary's intent in this program is to build the intellectual infrastructure that we need for today, and to address challenges going into the future," he said. "Part of this is about building skills. We believe that the government will benefit and the nation will benefit if we have a larger cadre of scholars who are conversant in primary-source Arabic documents, for example."

He added that he hoped the NSF's peer-review process would give the program credibility among scholars.

The new partnership with the NSF might not be frictionless, however. Just after the agreement was signed on Monday, a Pentagon official confidently stated that the two agencies would release a joint Minerva-related solicitation very soon, possibly within a week.

But in a comment submitted on Tuesday to a blog entry in The Chronicle about the announcement of the agreement, an NSF official corrected that account, writing that "any solicitation will be released only after careful internal discussion and consideration. There is no likelihood that a solicitation will be available within a week." (Meanwhile, in its urgency to get money into the hands of scholars before the end of the Bush administration, the Pentagon has already begun to accept Minerva proposals through a separate mechanism in which the NSF will play no role.)

Anxiety Over Influence

In any case, the NSF's potential participation is not likely to silence certain academics' skepticism about the Minerva program. Among the most visible skeptics is David H. Price, an associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Saint Martin's University and the author of a new history of World War II-era anthropology. Mr. Price says that even when the military solicits social scientists' insights, those insights are often ignored.

During the 1940s, "anthropologists sometimes offered good information that went against the agencies' groupthink, and they got absolutely nowhere," he says. "The best statement on this came from an anthropologist named Alexander Leighton, who worked at the Office of War Information. He said that most administrators there used anthropology as a drunk uses a lamppost: for support rather than illumination."

The American Sociological Association plans to discuss the Minerva project at its annual meeting next month. And a group known as the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, in which Mr. Price participates, has issued a statement warning that Minerva and similar programs mean that "the university becomes an instrument rather than a critic of warmaking."

In response to such statements, Mr. Mahnken says that the critics are doing what they sometimes accuse the Pentagon of doing: narrowing the scope of permissible argument. Mr. Deitchman made a similar point in his 1976 book, which was based on first-hand experience. He directed Project Agile, a late-1960s Pentagon effort to finance social science.

For what it's worth, Mr. Deitchman ended his memoir with a proposition that almost no one in the current Minerva debate is likely to find palatable. After witnessing a decade of angry Congressional hearings and bitter arguments within social-science organizations, he concluded that publicly financed social-science research was hopelessly politicized and that the federal government should, by and large, wash its hands of the entire business.

No matter whether they work for the Defense Department or for less controversial agencies, government-financed social scientists are in danger of swallowing "the values and outlook of the bureaucracy," Mr. Deitchman wrote. But in a new time of war and cross-cultural conflict, it's impossible to imagine that the federal government will follow Mr. Deitchman's advice and retreat from social-science research. The question now, as in 1965, is which agencies will steer that research.

— David Glenn
Chronicle of Higher Education
2008-07-02


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