Why Bob Gates’s new plan to fund academic research is just what the doctorate ordered.
Some academics working in the disciplines of social science and the humanities are howling like the proverbial dog that has caught the school bus. After haranguing the U.S. military establishment for being preoccupied with technology and ignoring the influence of cultural and social forces, they now confront a secretary of defense who agrees with them and has launched Project Minerva, which will invest as much as $50 million to promote basic research addressing issues of importance to U.S. national security.
Many academics recognize this for what it is: progress. But some vocal scholars, particularly among anthropologists, are complaining that the money is tainted because it comes from the Defense Department. Recently on this site, Hugh Gusterson, a professor of anthropology at George Mason University, thanked Secretary Robert Gates for his interest in national security and cultural studies, but flatly declared that most anthropologists would not apply for the money unless it was separated from the Defense Department entirely and administered through the National Science Foundation (NSF) or a similar civilian agency.
Secretary Gates should thank Professor Gusterson for his interest in national security and cultural studies, but follow through with Project Minerva as planned.
The NSF is a fine institution and certainly it is worth asking Congress to increase NSF funding for general academic research, including the kinds of areas that might yield a payoff at the intersection of national security and culture or society. But it is impractical to jettison Project Minerva, which Gates can and will deliver upon this year, for the dim prospect that Congress would increase funding for the NSF in future years. Moreover, Gates has in mind specific questions of importance for national security. Why shouldnt he be able to invest some of the Pentagons research funds and determine the questions to be asked?
Gustersons argument appears to go something like this. Anthropologists are too politicized and wedded to an antimilitary, far-left ideology, he claims, to be reliable partners with the Defense Department. His colleagues, Gusterson informs us, tend to view the military narrowly as an organization that kills the people who are the subjects of anthropological studies, treating such people only as collateral damage. Given those views, working on a Pentagon-funded project is unthinkable.
Indeed, roughly 1,000 anthropologists have signed a petition pledging that they will not help the Defense Department by serving on a different but related program: what the Pentagon calls Human Terrain System teamsthe intelligence fusion teams that seek to use the tools of ethnography to better understand the allies and the enemies in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Of course, anthropologists had loudly complained about the cultural ignorance of some of the earlier approaches taken by the military in those conflicts. But they complained just as loudly about the militarys efforts to improve its cultural understanding, arguing that it was a violation of professional academic ethics to provide any kind of information to the military that would assist it in the conduct of the wars.
Secretary Gates has promised that the Minerva Consortia will abide by principles of openness and academic freedom. Although the Defense Department will get to pick which of the proposals get funded, Gates has made it clear that the selection criteria will be based on the importance of the question and the quality of the approach, not on whether the answers will be flattering to existing military policies.
In light of these commitments, the only problem Gusterson can identify is the refusal of some of his colleagues to work with the Defense Department. This, he claims, might lead to selection bias, where only certain academics would applyacademics who are not wedded to the antimilitary ideology of mainstream anthropology (and so by implication, or perhaps by deduction, are of lower quality?)thus impoverishing the debate. Impoverished debates, he warns, leads to lost wars like Vietnam.
As scaremongering goes, this is not likely to raise the hair on many peoples heads.
A quick Nexis search will confirm that the anthropologists who oppose U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq are free to do their work and zealously contribute to the policy debate. The policy debate already has the full benefit of their wisdom and nothing in Project Minerva interferes with their freedom to contribute more. Indeed, if they have been speaking truth to power, they should rejoice that power has listened and wants to fund their research.
The dangers of Project Minerva seem manageable. At best, it will bring fresh perspectives and insights to bear on the challenges confronting America and the world. At worst, it will attract applicants disproportionately drawn from the ranks of scholars who are willing to be associated with our military and willing to buck possible intimidation from a politicized academy. Given the many serious challenges this country has overcome in the past, I believe we can overcome this worst-case scenario, too.