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Military's Social Science Grants Raise Alarm

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By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 3, 2008

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is calling on "eggheads" to help the military unravel questions about the recruitment of terrorists, the resurgence of the Taliban and messages delivered in militant Muslim religious schools.

Many eggheads are wary.

The Pentagon's $50 million Minerva Research Initiative, named after the Roman goddess of wisdom and warriors, will fund social science research deemed crucial to national security. Initial proposals were due July 25, and the first grants are expected to be awarded by year's end.

But the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, which includes professors from American and George Mason universities, said dependence on Pentagon funding could make universities an "instrument rather than a critic of war-making."

In a May 28 letter to federal officials, the American Anthropological Association said that it was of "paramount importance . . . to study the roots of terrorism and other forms of violence" but that its members are "deeply concerned that funding such research through the Pentagon may pose a potential conflict of interest."

Gates, a former president of Texas A&M University, described the Minerva program in an April speech to the Association of American Universities. The nation should devote more resources to "elements of national power beyond the guns and steel of the military," he said.

"In Iraq and Afghanistan, the heroic efforts and best intentions of our men and women in uniform have at times been undercut by a lack of knowledge of the culture and people they are dealing with every day," he said. Gates said the research would not be kept secret.

David Price, an anthropologist at St. Martin's University in Lacey, Wash., and the author of a book on anthropological intelligence in World War II, agreed that the military and policymakers should know more about world cultures. But, he said, the Pentagon effort is flawed.

"It sets up sort of a Soviet system, or top-down system," Price said. "If you look at the big picture, this will not make us smarter -- this will make us much more narrow. It will only look at problems Defense wants us to in a narrow way."

Every year, the Defense Department spends billions of dollars on research to improve technology, weapons and medicine, including nearly $13 billion this fiscal year. But its relationship with social science has sometimes been tumultuous. Anthropologists were active during World War II, even designing propaganda to encourage Japanese soldiers to surrender.

In the 1960s, Project Camelot, an Army-sponsored effort to study political change and unrest in Latin America, was canceled abruptly after the program was revealed in the Chilean press.

Recently, the Army's Human Terrain System has embedded social scientists in military units in Iraq and Afghanistan with the aim of helping commanders understand local culture and customs. The project has drawn criticism from many academics. Two scholars have been killed.


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