Social Science in Harness


“In Paracelsus’s time the energy of universities resided in the conflict between humanism and theology; the energy of the modern university lives in the love-affair between government and science, and sometimes the two are so close it makes you shudder.”

–Robertson Davies The Rebel Angels

From the 1930s into the 1960s, Trofim Lysenko’s crackpot biological theories provided the Soviet Union’s leadership with scientific justifications for the forced collectivization of farms and other centralized policy dreams.  Lysenko rejected Mendelian genetics and Darwinian models of natural selection in favor of Lamarkian notions of inheritability of acquired characteristics, and for decades all Soviet biologists needed to work in ways that did not challenge Lysenko’s doctrine.  Lysenko’s claim that changes occurring in an individual during their lifetime could be passed on to their offspring seemed to offer scientific proof supporting the Soviet dream that rapid revolutionary formations could transform not just society, but nature itself.  So powerful was Lysenko’s impact that the bogus experimental data he produced to justify his work stood unchallenged for decades as valid empirical work.

Soviet biologists learned to align their work with the state’s conception of the world, and the career’s of those dissidents who would not so align their views fell by the wayside.

The demands of conforming scientific knowledge with the ideological positions of a powerful state stunted the development of Soviet biology for decades.  But today, American social science faces new forms of ideologically controlled funding that stand to transform our universities’ production of knowledge in ways reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s ideological control over scientific interpretations.  As non-directed independent funding for American social scientists decreases, there are steady increases in new directed funding programs such as the Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program, the National Security Education Program, Intelligence Community Scholars Program; these programs leave our universities increasingly ready to produce knowledge and scholars aligned with the ideological assumptions of the Defense Department.

The latest step along this trajectory came with Secretary of Defense Gate’s announcement on April 14th of the formation of the Minerva Consortium, a Defense Department program designed to further link universities to Defense’s prescribed views and analysis.  Gates announced Minerva in a speech to presidents of research universities assembled at a meeting of the Association of American Universities.  The comments of these university presidents in the press found them pleased beyond the mere measure of the paltry proportion of funds that Gates promised.

Gates’ initial proposal only offered his audience funds “in the millions, not tens of millions;” sums that once dispersed across several universities would only be table scraps is most university budgets.  But these university presidents realize the great potential for future feasts of funds if they can corral their faculty to think in ways aligned with Minerva.  Gates’ announcement came three weeks before California’s Governor Schwarzenegger announced that the University of California’s flagship East Asian Studies program would be cutting its offerings in class due to $40 million in budget cuts.  Gates’ silence on these larger systemic issues while pulling the academy in towards a program designed to produce limited, directed knowledge speaks volumes.  And these hard times for university budgets will likewise make universities less able to pass on whatever crumbs the Pentagon from its lavishly stocked table.

Gates envisions that the Minerva initiative will consist of “a consortia of universities that will promote research in specific areas. These consortia could also be repositories of open-source documentary archives. The Department of Defense, perhaps in conjunction with other government agencies, could provide the funding for these projects.”  Minerva has now issued a request for proposals, their initial interests consist of projects working on: “Chinese Military and Technology Research and Archive Programs,” “Studies of the strategic impact of religious and cultural changes within the Islamic World,” an “Iraqi Perspectives Project,””Studies of Terrorist Organization and Ideologies,” and “New approaches to understanding dimensions of national security, conflict and cooperation.”  All of these are important topics of critical study, but ideological narrowness of the Defense Department’s approach to and presuppositions of these topics will necessarily warp project outcomes in much the same ways that Lysenko warped the development of Soviet biology.  Broken institutions can’t repair themselves, and agencies bound to neo-imperial desires of occupation and subjugation will not be receptive to scholarly work seeking to correct this national blunder.

Because of the narrowness of scope and assumptions about the causes of problems facing America, Gates’ Minerva plan will harm America’s strategic capabilities as it will inevitably fund scholars willing to think in the narrow ways already acceptable to the Defense Department.   If Gates really wants to better inform American policy, intelligence and military decisions, he should focus his power and energies on increasing the dwindling generalized social science, area study centers (though these have since their WWII inception have always had a Lysenkoian glow of state directed purpose), and language training programs.  But Gates is instead supportive of the world that brought us secretive “pay-back” programs locking students into national security servitude in their most formative years; with Minerva extend his reach into universities more general social science community.

It’s not that the U.S. government has historically funded all social sciences approaches equally.  It hasn’t, and this has historically created its own problems.  To pick one obvious example, the funding of American social science during the 1940s and 50s finds a lack of funding for scholars openly engaging in Marxist or even explicitly materialist much less class-based analysis; but during the fruitful years of the 1960s and 70s, the US government shifted to a model of funding that cast financial seeds broadly, with expectations that general funding would produce knowledge and scholars of use to the needs of state.  And that it did, even though it funded critics of American policies openly studying critical theory, dependency theory, the culture of poverty, and stratification of race, class and gender just as it funded modernization theory, development, and other theories linked with sustaining the status quo.   This open model of funding was productive for all, and the extent to which it produced plenty of scholars who thought in ways aligned with the needs of state: the U.S. government got a good return for its investment whether they realized it or not.

In my field, anthropology, there is an overwhelming disciplinary amnesia of the extent to which research has been directed by the Pentagon and intelligence agencies in the past.  But there has been a broad spectrum of overt and covert control over this funding control, with the full range running from the rampant secret directing of funding of unwitting scholars doing research of interest to the CIA and others, to the open, massive funding of a full spectrum of social science and language projects through agencies like the NSF or Fulbright Programs.

In efforts to find middle ground, the leadership of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) recently suggested that rather than running the selection and management of Minerva through the Department of Defense, that this program be run through “external” agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) (disclosure: which funded my 1989-90 Egyptian dissertation fieldwork).  The AAA argues that it is “deeply concerned that funding such research through the Pentagon may pose a potential conflict of interest and undermine the practices of peer review.”

Unfortunately, Minerva’s recent request for proposals indicates Defense ignored modest suggestions that proposal be vetted through external agencies.  I am glad the AAA and others are raising these concerns, but I think the critique of Minerva can be pushed further.  Anthropologist Hugh Gusterson, a founding member of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, recently wrote in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists: “When research that could be funded by neutral civilian agencies is instead funded by the military, knowledge is subtly militarized and bent in the way a tree is bent by a prevailing wind. The public comes to accept that basic academic research on religion and violence "belongs" to the military; scholars who never saw themselves as doing military research now do; maybe they wonder if their access to future funding is best secured by not criticizing U.S. foreign policy; a discipline whose independence from military and corporate funding fueled the kind of critical thinking a democracy needs is now compromised; and the priorities of the military further define the basic terms of public and academic debate.”

Minerva seeks to increase the military’s understanding of other cultures.  This is a different project than the Cold War funding programs that openly sought to increase policy makers understanding of other cultures. The Bush Doctrine’s proximity to Minerva suggests a program designed to give the tools of culture to those in the military who will be told where to invade and occupy, not to those who might be asked of the wisdom of such actions.  As legions of troop supporting SUV drivers with affixed magnetic yellow ribbons insist on reminding us: the troops don’t pick the wars they fights, they follows orders.  

Beyond existential questions of desertion, this is certainly true; and anthropologists adding to the military’s cultural repertoire in ways that Minerva will pay anthropologists and others to do, will likewise follow order to produce specific knowledge.  What’s next, will academics be driving gas guzzling SUVs with Harris Tweed magnetic ribbons proclaiming: “support the anthropologists (they don’t decide when we go to war and who we fight)”?  Social scientists cannot ignore the political context in which their knowledge will be used in limited ways by those wishing to fund it, and Minerva’s mission does not seek to alter the basic uses to which this knowledge will be put.  Minerva seeks to increase the efficiency of implementing the Bush Doctrine, not the questioning of it.

Minerva doesn’t appear to be funding projects designed to tell Defense why the US shouldn’t invade and occupy other countries; its programs are more concerned with the nuts and bolts of counterinsurgency, and answering specific questions related to the occupation and streamlining the problems of empire.  This sort of Soviet model of directed social science funding will make America’s critical perspective more narrow precisely at an historical moment when we need a new breadth of knowledge and perspective.

Gates and others at Defense need to hear from independent, unindentured critical scholars who will tell them that counterinsurgency won’t work the way that the current social science salesmen pitching it to the Pentagon and the think tanks of Dupont Circle’s hegemony row would have them believe; and the Minerva Consortium will not take social science in this needed critical direction. 

The problem with Gate’s Minerva vision is the problem with Soviet science: ideologically dependent science’s purse strings cannot lead to good results.  If Gates really wanted good social science, not social science that tastes good (and familiar to the Pentagon’s limited palate), he would be lobbying congress to increase the funding of generalized social science—including dissident social science—not pushing to Sovietize the social sciences.   

DAVID PRICE is a member of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists.  He is the author of Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War, just published by Duke University Press. He can be reached at dprice@stmartin.edu



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