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Military's Social Science Grants Raise Alarm

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.

Thomas Mahnken, a deputy assistant defense secretary for policy planning, said Minerva is "not about supporting combat operations." He said Gates seeks to fill a void in funding for basic social science scholarship that would improve understanding of issues that bear on national security.

"This is the first significant effort in 30 or 40 years to engage social sciences on a large scale by the Department of Defense," Mahnken said, citing the unsuccessful Project Camelot as a contributor to a rift between the military and many anthropologists.

"There was an effort during [the Vietnam era] that ended up being ill-conceived and burned bridges on both sides, and, unfortunately, these attitudes have persisted," Mahnken said. "This effort is about rebuilding those bridges."

In his April speech, Gates recalled U.S. efforts to raise math and science education after the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite, in 1957. He quoted the late historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. as saying that the United States should "return to the acceptance of eggheads and ideas if it is to meet the Russian challenge."

Minerva will fund research on five topics, including the development of China's military and technological prowess and how religion, culture, economics and politics in the Islamic world "interact to foster political violence, terrorism or insurgent behavior."

The Pentagon also wants insights into Saddam Hussein's rule and into terrorist groups. Citing the development of game theory and Kremlinology in the Cold War, the Pentagon is asking the brightest minds to come up with new ways of thinking about national security. Universities around the world are eligible for Minerva funding. Officials said $50 million will be awarded over five years.

David Vine, an American University anthropologist, criticized the initiative, saying the research would be limited by the Pentagon's worldview.

"Research about a potential conflict with China, I feel, may be part of a large self-fulfilling prophecy," Vine said. "That kind of research could lead up to an increasing escalation of military tensions and military preparations for war."

The Network of Concerned Anthropologists, which describes itself as an advocate for ethical anthropology, said the research topics could "contribute to creating more national and human insecurity by trafficking in the construction of . . . a connection between Islam and violence."

Vine said he would apply for funding. His topic: how overseas military bases affect relations with other nations, "how they've damaged our international reputation and how they've damaged the lives of people around the world."

Other academics embrace the Pentagon project.

"Hopefully, a project like Minerva will provide some historical perspective before, rather than after, it is needed," said Robert B. Townsend, acting executive director of the American Historical Association.

Graham B. Spanier, president of Penn State University, said researchers there will eagerly seek funding for work to bring insight and nuance to policymaking.

Spanier, noting Gates's experience as a university president, expressed confidence in the defense secretary's commitment to academic freedom. In his April speech, Gates said Minerva would solicit diverse views, regardless of whether they are critical of the military.

But Maximilian C. Forte, an anthropologist at Concordia University in Montreal, said he worries that the project could damage an important asset for anthropologists: trust.

Forte, who has been doing research in the Caribbean region, said debate over Minerva has made some of his subjects suspicious of his motives. They want to know who is really backing him "because they are concerned I might be some kind of intelligence agent. We're all going to be seen as potentially serving the state, as being the eyes and ears of American foreign policy."

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