Minerva Project and Looted Iraqi Documents (2.0)

This struck me the first time that I read the Department of Defense’s “Broad Agency Announcement,” soliciting project proposals for the new Minerva Research Initiative. One of the areas of research for which applications are invited is titled the “Iraqi Perspectives Project.” Part of the description of the background of this research field reads as follows:

In the course of Operation Iraqi Freedom, a vast number of documents and other media came into the possession of the Department of Defense. The materials have already been transferred to electronic media and organized. Yet these comprise only a small part of the growing declassified archive and its potential, combined with the open literature. This continuing collection offers a unique opportunity for multidisciplinary scholarship combined with research in methods and technologies for assisting scholarship in automated analysis, organization, retrieval, translation, and collaboration.

“Came into the possession” of the DoD appears to be a way of passively saying that these are documents deliberately taken from Iraq by invading American forces, at roughly the same time as vast amounts of Iraqi national treasures were being looted or destroyed (Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously said at the time, in his cavalier manner, “freedom looks messy”). The Chronicle of Higher Education in an article on July 1, 2008, titled “Controversy Continues to Dog the Deal to Move Iraqi Archives to Hoover Institution” speaks of seven million documents being moved to Stanford University, to a conservative think tank housed there (the Hoover Institution). This has been done over and against the protests of the Director of the Iraqi National Library and Archive.

Given how the current American regime repeats that Iraq is “free and sovereign,” even while occupied and dictated to, perhaps one should not be surprised that Iraqis are also being robbed of their history, as if only Americans can do the job of understanding them for them and the rest of us, as if Iraqi history is only safe when penned by American hands. This is classic colonialism, of the victor writing the history of the vanquished, done in a particularly brazen, public, manner without any room for question, discussion, or even a token apology or promise to one day return the documents.

While the government may choose to “respect” Iraqi “freedom and sovereignty” in this manner…should scholars?


Given some recent, confusing, announcements about a memorandum of understanding having been signed between the DoD and the National Science Foundation, one has to wonder how scholars, in good conscience, could participate in such a program that includes components such as the one above, based on conquest and expropriation. There is a notion that by involving the NSF, researchers will not need to accept “Pentagon money” and will be on a separate track.

Not so fast.

This notion seems to have sprung from confusion, of the kind we find in The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s article, “Minerva Takes Flesh: Pentagon and Science Foundation Sign Social-Science Deal,” wherein we read the following:

But today’s agreement is broader than Minerva: It also creates a mechanism through which the Department of Defense can help to finance other national-security-related proposals submitted to the NSF. In such cases, scholars will have the option to decline the Pentagon’s money.

In case I am mistaken, perhaps a reader can explain how the two statements, in bold above, are not contradictory. On the one hand, the article clearly states that the money will come from DoD, then “DoD” is dropped and replaced with the word “Pentagon,” and we are told that somehow a successful project proposal, awarded DoD money, can allow a researcher to refuse “Pentagon money” (!?) That means the researcher is declining the award, period.

[Update: For the sake of clarity, especially since the lack of it is at the root of the complaint here, I should have added: the article assumes that there will be a separate source of financing for NSF-reviewed national security research proposals. There has been no announcement, no indication that NSF’s coffers would be boosted so it can run a parallel program, and boosted by some agency other than the DoD. The article above leads one to believe that the DoD will supplement NSF funding, and a researcher can refuse that supplement. Again, there is nothing to substantiate that claim.]

As indicated by the NSF in a comment that appears under that article, it is still neither clear nor settled what kind of collaboration will exist between the NSF and the DoD. The collaboration might consist of as little as joint workshops.

But hopefully, if the NSF has any say whatsoever, it should prohibit any projects that involve the illegal use of stolen Iraqi documents, which must be repatriated to Iraq.

11 thoughts on “Minerva Project and Looted Iraqi Documents (2.0)

  1. David Glenn

    Yes, there were severe problems in that Chronicle news-blog item of mine (most of which are addressed in Mark Weiss’s comment there). Apologies to all concerned.

    To (hopefully) clarify the point about funding:

    Part of what the memorandum of understanding contemplates is that the DoD might offer supplemental funding for pre-existing, non-Minerva-related NSF social-science programs.

    For example, the DoD is reportedly interested in the NSF’s program in Human and Social Dynamics [http://www.nsf.gov/funding/pgm_summ.jsp?pims_id=11678].

    In such cases, here is how the supplemental funding would work:

    Imagine that the NSF receives 50 Human + Social Dynamics proposals and rank-orders them. On its own, the NSF can afford to finance the top 10 proposals. At this point, the DoD might peer over the NSF’s shoulder and say, “We’ll offer supplemental funding for the proposals you ranked as 3, 4, and 7, because those are on topics of interest to us.”

    The NSF will then approach the principal investigators of proposals 3, 4, and 7, and say: “The DoD is offering supplemental funding to support your project. If you turn down the DoD money, there’s no penalty to you. We’ll still finance your project, and you’ll get no less money than you would have otherwise. However, if you accept the DoD money, that will free up NSF resources and allow us to support the proposals we rank-ordered as 11, 12, 13. So you’ll be doing a good deed for your peers if you take the DoD money.”

    If and when the NSF releases a solicitation that is explicitly geared toward Minerva-related research projects, there will be some similar provision allowing people to decline DoD money.

    Some scholars have expressed concern about the DoD’s scrutiny of these NSF proposals. But I’m not sure that this new DoD/NSF proposal actually changes much, in that regard. The NSF’s processes are generally transparent, so if the DoD wants to know, for example, who’s getting NSF support to do field work in Uzbekistan, they’ve always had that ability.

  2. Maximilian Forte

    A great many thanks David for taking the time to post these details, and I am sure that readers will find this information very useful.

    This not only clarifies a great deal, but it also lends some weight to what Hugh Gusterson has been saying about the role of the NSF and how this might offer an alternative route. Had I been more imaginative, and clever, I could/should have guessed that there was another option, such as the one you describe.

    Again, thanks very much.

  3. David Glenn

    Update/correction to my notes above:

    The NSF released its Minerva-related solicitation on Wednesday, and there is no provision for researchers to decline DoD money. This particular project will be financed entirely by the DoD, full stop.

    But the NSF confirmed yesterday that the procedures I describe above will apply in cases where the DoD offers supplemental funding to research projects in “regular” NSF social-science programs.

    More here, with apologies for the paywall:

  4. Maximilian Forte

    That is very sad news, and thanks for the posting and the link. I know that others were hoping for some sort of avenue by which to do funded research that did not necessarily subscribe to any of the lines advanced by Minerva, or even critical of them, and it seems that their options have narrowed now.

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  8. Maximilian Forte

    One more thank you: since your note I produced a short summary and series of extracts from the article. There are many extremely important essays on that SSRC site, it is quite a resource, and this newest essay by Saad Eskander is especially critical. I hope more people visit the site.

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