Hugh Gusterson: “Minerva Controversy,” and the SSRC

The U.S. Social Science Research Council has launched a series of articles in a special section of its website devoted to what it calls the Minerva Controversy. Among them is Hugh Gusterson’s “Unveiling Minerva.” This is a list of some of the key points he makes in his article:

(1) Gusterson persuasively likens Pentagon funding of research on issues of national security and “counter-terrorism,” proclaiming that it is open to all academics and to the highest quality research, to the tobacco industry funding studies on the health effects of smoking. The point of the analogy is that some prospective researchers will simply refuse to be associated with anything involving the tobacco industry, on principle. Others may be tempted, might consider the funding on a pragmatic basis, but might turn away from the funding if they fear that their reputations as independent researchers could be jeopardized, or fear that there may be hidden strings attached to the funding. That leaves one group of applicants: those who support the tobacco industry, and those whose work has not been of a high enough quality to attract funding from other sources. In other words, the Pentagon, by virtue of its direct role in funding research, is narrowing the pool of applicants. There is a self-selection of researchers who are favourably disposed to the Pentagon, or who lack the ability to produce high quality independent research.

(2) The National Science Foundation stepped in to administer and offer review of projects for a portion of the Pentagon’s Minerva funds. This does not guarantee different results, Gusterson argues.  The NSF program, “which bears the Defense Department logo, is being used to give Minerva a cosmetic makeover rather than to make Minerva genuinely independent of the military.” The majority of Minerva funding is still to be controlled by the Pentagon. The Pentagon will also pick some members of the NSF review panels. The Pentagon also insists that recipients of NSF Minerva funding attend collective meetings with Pentagon officials seeking “to develop a social sciences brains trust.”

Needless to say, researchers whose positions differ from the Pentagon’s worldview, and those who value and prioritize relations with hosts and interlocutors built on the basis of trust, will not wish to jeopardize their positions and relationships.

(3) Why is the Pentagon opposed to releasing all of its research funds to independent civilian agencies, even if they are to sponsor research in the same broad areas? The reasons gos beyond bureaucratic politics, Gusterson argues:

Secretary of Defense Gates has spoken of the “war on terror” as a war that will stretch across generations, and of the need to develop a long-range capability to prevail in that war. His longer term goal is to develop a cadre of social scientists, particularly in anthropology, who are tied to the military and its projects. In a way that promises to undo the implosion of Project Camelot during the Vietnam War, thus helping to “kick the Vietnam syndrome,” these social scientists will be on call for consultations, they will be drawn into the training of soldiers and intelligence officers, they will serve as adjudicators of research proposals for others, and they will train students and direct them to careers as military social scientists.

The results can be anticipated:

taxpayers will not have got the research they might have got; the military will hear what it wants to but not what it needs to…

and, what is for me the most important point:

in a society where thought is already too deeply militarized, academic spaces of dissent from the prevailing military mindset will be further eroded as researchers talk themselves into believing that telling the military how to do kinder, gentler, more informed military occupations represents critical thinking.

Other essays in the collection thus far include:The Essays

‘Operations Other than War’: The Politics of Academic Scholarship in the Early 21st-Century
David Nugent
Professor of Anthropology, Emory University

The Forgotten History of Knowledge and Power in British Iraq, or Why Minerva’s Owl Cannot Fly
Priya Satia
Assistant Professor of History, Stanford University

Skewing Scholarship
Conor Gearty
Director, Centre for the Study of Human Rights-LSE

Pentagon Priorities and the Minerva Program
John Tirman
Executive Director, MIT Center for International Studies

Faisal Devji
Associate Professor of History, The New School

On Saturday, 25 October, 2008, the SSRC will be hosting a roundtable discussion on the Minerva controversy. Check here for more.

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