Minerva: Risks, Opportunities, Boycotts, and Mentally Handicapped Informants?

In the Washington Post article for which I was interviewed (I am the “but”, appropriately at the end), there was a suggestion that a project critical of U.S. foreign policy should be submitted to test the openness of the Minerva Research Initiative and its Pentagon-funded counterpart at the National Science Foundation. I do not recall Maria Glod asking me to address this option, but my answer would have been that it is not a good idea, as clever of a challenge as it is. In the specific choice of research topic identified by Dr. David Vine, it too can be reverse engineered by military planners to make for better, more effective positioning of foreign military bases.

There is a much bigger set of problems with Pentagon funding, even for critical projects, especially projects that are ethnographic. One is that regardless of the nature of the project, in the eyes of at least some people in the rest of the world the research will have been funded by the military arm of an imperialist state. The more that American researchers debate these issues outside of the context of the very grave damage done by their military to other nations, the more they appear desensitized, indifferent, and self-centered.

Perhaps there is a quiet assumption that one can withhold information about one’s source of funding when interacting with current or prospective local hosts and collaborators, or that a debate can be avoided in all cases. If the researcher’s approach, in revealing one’s sponsor, is to say something akin to, “my stay here is being funded by the Pentagon, but really, it’s not like I share the Pentagon’s world view,” then that will introduce a credibility problem. Knowing that the results of the research are going back to the Pentagon, and indeed even the raw data in written or electronic form could be seized at the researcher’s point of reentry to the U.S., American researchers are going to be viewed with even more suspicion and reticence than they are now, and that means that the results of their ethnographic research will be highly suspect. If they cannot establish meaningful relations of trust, then the ability to gain intimate knowledge will be hampered, and suddenly the ethnography will have little more depth than travel writing. The researcher could also be exposed to danger.

Secondly, one should not assume our local partners to be dumb, or as I say in the title, “mentally handicapped.” Many of them can read what is being revealed online about Pentagon funding for the social sciences, and many may already have very definite opinions about U.S. expansionism. To assume that Pentagon funding is a question of concern only among researchers, is to objectify, marginalize, and dehumanize the people who will be our hosts. And to divorce the institution at home from the same institution that kills and destroys abroad, in the name of all Americans, is at the very least poor, naive analysis.

A third problem is that of ethics. One of the projects supported by the Pentagon, as I discussed previously, involves research using stolen Iraqi documents. The American Anthropological Association, with debates raging as to the ethics of embedding anthropologists in counterinsurgency programs, has sidestepped this particular ethical issue — the search for a middle ground is now looking more like a nervous rush into the other camp. Indeed, the AAA has gone as far as indicating that “we are pleased” with the involvement of the National Science Foundation in merely processing applications for a share of the Pentagon funds, as mentioned previously. Many of the same ethical problems reemerge in the Minerva Initiative, except that researchers are not necessarily embedded in combat teams (that they can be is made explicit in the Pentagon’s solicitation of proposals, as I already indicated). So the ethical problems not only do not vanish, when compared with debates about the Human Terrain System, they instead appear to be greater in number and perhaps more troubling as well.

One should expect that many researchers will compromise, while others have already said “bring it on” and are enthusiastic about getting the money, as also indicated in the Washington Post article. In the U.S., arguably the only domestic growth industries that show any promise of longevity are the military and video game industries. Given the political economy of research funding, it should not be surprising to find more and more projects geared toward one or the other industry.

As critical as one may like to be, both the Pentagon and Minerva have very definite guidelines for proposed research projects. There are limits as to what can be proposed. The most critical, independent, and authentic ethnographic research is going to be increasingly rare and supported by alternate means. In order to ensure independence, I have been considering teaching extra and devoting the funds to research, after my current grants run out. If I understand correctly, research costs are tax deductible in Canada, and perhaps elsewhere as well?

A Boycott?

So, to bring this post to some sort of conclusion, am I advocating a boycott of Pentagon funding? One can certainly boycott on a personal and individual level — for example, I have previously served as a reviewer for the National Science Foundation on three occasions (twice really, one was a re-review for a project being reconsidered). I do not plan to agree to any more requests for reviews. But how far do we go with a boycott? Should we also boycott conferences at which Pentagon-funded researchers may be presenting? Should we go and heckle them? Should we be even nastier, and press an association to ban Pentagon-funded researchers from presenting papers at a given conference? Should we refuse to sit on editorial boards of journals that accept papers from Pentagon-funded authors? Should we refuse peer review of such journals? Should we lobby our libraries to cease subscriptions to journals containing the published research of Pentagon-funded researchers? What about book publishers? Boycott them, ban them, not submit work to them? Pretty soon such a boycott becomes massive and sweeping as we begin to find Minerva research in every little corner, which means that we either tire of professional war as a full-time, obsessional activity, or we nearly destroy the university. And this is why I find the compromisers to be unforgivable: the compromise of a mere few becomes the compromise of us all.

The only alternative I can think of, and one that is not much less adventurous than a boycott, is the creation of Pentagon-free zones. For example, new journals and new conferences that openly boast of their independence from Pentagon funding. Another alternative might be the creation of smaller, independent anthropological associations. I wonder: would those who head the Network of Concerned Anthropologists ever consider turning their network into the foundation for a new association?

My weak attempt at a prediction is that all of this will be made to pass, with occasional flash points, this or that researcher reported to be in some conflict with a local community, and most will forget that there was ever a bigger picture, or that there is a bigger picture to be seen. And once again critics in radical social movements outside of the university will point fingers at academics as ultimately untrustworthy, as compromised by divided loyalties, as blinded by the luster of research capital, as embedded within an institutional form that is firmly a part of world capitalism. And once again they will be right. As a professor and former supervisor at SUNY-Binghamton once commented to me, no anti-systemic movement ever emerged from Wallerstein’s classes, Wallerstein who was then at Binghamton, and is now at Yale.

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