Academics and the War on Terror

Hugh Gunderson addresses with appropriate moderation, Project Minerva, the Pentagon’s renewed interest in academic knowledge to better fight its war on terror.

As Gunderson reports, under Minerva, the Pentagon has allocated $50 million for academics, for example, “to write about the connections between religion, especially Islam, and terrorism; translate, analyze, and publicly archive documents captured in the Iraq war; create a centralized archive of publicly available documents on Chinese military doctrine and technology… Secretary Gates flagged the contributions that could be made by history, sociology, evolutionary biology and, above all, by my own discipline, anthropology.”

Gunderson details why, “many anthropologists simply will not apply for funding if it comes from the Pentagon.” 

…Anthropologists already report being suspected of working for U.S. intelligence agencies when they do field research abroad, and they will be concerned that research subjects will refuse to talk to them if they have been openly funded by the U.S. military. Some will be concerned that the Pentagon will seek to bend their research agenda to its own needs, interfering with their academic freedom. Still others will be nervous that colleagues will shun them. But many will refuse simply on principle: Anthropology is, by many measures, the academy’s most left-leaning discipline, and many people become anthropologists out of a visceral sympathy for the kinds of people who all too often show up as war’s collateral damage. One thousand anthropologists have already signed a pledge not to accept Pentagon funding for counterinsurgency work in the Middle East.

Gunderson isn’t satisfied for this parting of ways.

“So what?” you might ask. Isn’t that their problem? Graham Spanier, the president of Pennsylvania State University and a Minerva booster, recently told the New York Times that scholars who oppose Pentagon funding simply “shouldn’t apply.” This glib sentiment has an obvious appeal, but U.S. policymakers would be well advised to think hard before taking Spanier’s advice.

Think back to Vietnam. Why did “the best and the brightest” misread the situation so profoundly? Because U.S. foreign policy was made in an atmosphere that had been stripped bare of insights from the left and robbed of debate between left and right. Under McCarthyism, many left-leaning academics had been purged from universities, and Joseph McCarthy and his allies had rooted out the liberal experts on Asia from the State Department, leaving the policy debate bereft of the very people who might have foreseen the calamity of Vietnam.

Minerva, of course, isn’t analogous to McCarthyism. It is, in fact, an attempt to draw from a broader range of knowledge and opinion—an impulse for which we should applaud Secretary Gates. However, given the prevailing academic allergy to defense funding, any attempt to centralize thinking about culture and terrorism under the Pentagon’s roof will inevitably produce an intellectually shrunken outcome. Remember the reluctant anthropologists? The Pentagon will have the false comfort of believing that it has harnessed the best and the brightest minds, when in fact it will have only received a very limited slice of what the ivory tower has to offer—academics who have no problem taking Pentagon funds. Social scientists call this “selection bias,” and it can lead to dangerous analytical errors.

How can government and academics work better together?

Happily, there is a quick and easy fix. Many academics would prefer that the National Science Foundation (or perhaps the Social Science Research Council) take on Minerva, rather than the Pentagon. Unlike the Department of Defense, the NSF already has deep experience supervising this kind of research, and as a neutral party it comes without the Pentagon’s baggage. You may wonder: Does it really matter whose name is on the letterhead? Absolutely—when it comes to top-notch academic research, details like the source of one’s funding can make or break the legitimacy of one’s work.

We are at a juncture where we are about to set our policy in the Middle East for a decade or more. If we want to avoid a desert Vietnam, if we want a policy debate that includes bright, knowledgeable people from the left as well as the right, we should move Minerva’s search for wisdom into the civilian sphere before it’s too late.

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One Response to “Academics and the War on Terror”

  1. Left of Centre Says:

    Today’s Reading Assignment: Why Graham Got MInerva…

    Last month I blogged about the Minerva project, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ research initiative in the humanities and social sciences….

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