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Minerva: DoD and NSF team up for peer review

16 July, 2008

I’ve been thinking about the Human Terrain System (HTS) lately, and the relationship between anthropology and the U.S. military more generally, because I’m working on an article on the topic for Weghat Nazar, an Egyptian monthly, which I’m co-authoring with Egyptian journalist Amal Osman. As part of my research for the article, I just came across a few interesting news items (via a listserv I joined on anthropology and the military) related to military funding for social science research.

Basically, the news, reported in Nature on July 10, is that “on 30 June, the defence department signed a memorandum of understanding that will direct some of its money into social and behavioural science research through the National Science Foundation (NSF).”  Here are a few relevant bits from the article:

“All proposals will be selected for funding through the NSF’s standard peer-review process. The research will be unclassified and no restrictions will be placed on researchers’ freedom to publish their results — or for that matter, to criticize the defence department….”

“The NSF agreement has been widely acclaimed by university administrators, who welcome the extra research money . But it has aroused the suspicion among some researchers that it will distort social science towards military priorities. Of particular concern is the fact that the defence department will have some say in the choice of the NSF’s peer reviewers.”

This has also been covered in Science.  Here’s an excerpt:

“The program will have two arms of equal size. One will be managed by Defense officials and the other by NSF, with some Pentagon input on the selection of reviewers. “There are several topics of mutual interest” within the Minerva areas, says David Lightfoot, who heads NSF’s social sciences directorate. “Securing the national defense was part of our charter in 1950,” he adds.”

What this seems to mean is that applications for Minerva Project money will go through an academic peer-review process, rather than being vetted by military officials, which was something critiqued when Wired first reported on Minerva when it was announced a few months ago.

The official NSF announcement is available on their website, and has also been covered in the Chronicle of Higher Education blog, which clarifies that there are two tracks for reviewing proposals, and also a mechanism for people to refuse DoD funding for their NSF project applications:

The Pentagon is also accepting Minerva proposals through a separate pathway known as a broad agency announcement. Proposals that are submitted via this second track will reviewed through the Defense Department’s usual processes, not by NSF panels.)

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.

Anthropologist David Price has described in counterpunch his concerns about how military funding will transform the kinds of research that social scientists do:

…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.

(Meanwhile, if anyone has anything interesting to say about HTS or the relationship between anthropology and the military that they think would be particularly relevant to a Middle East audience, please get in touch with me at lisa.wynn[at]mq.edu.au.)

–L.L. Wynn

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 26 July, 2008 3:47 pm

    Did you notice the contradiction in this?

    “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.”

    I don’t understand that — if the NSF funds a proposal, using DoD money, then that by definition is Pentagon money. It seems like the writer got snagged on “Pentagon” as being something separate from DoD, which is amazing. If a researcher declines the Pentagon’s money, then he or she simply gets no funding.

    Why do you think people are missing these glaring gaps in logic?

  2. 27 July, 2008 10:43 am

    I know, I thought that was odd, but I assumed that it signaled that there would be a fund of money coming from the Department of Defense, in addition to the regular money that NSF has to award for research projects, and that if you were deemed worthy of receiving funding, then they might offer to fund you from the DoD pot of money, and if you refused, then you would get funded by the NSF pot of money. But I agree it’s not at all clear — it seems to presume that there’s an elasticity in researchers’ inclinations to be funded by the DoD. What if everyone refused the DoD money? Then presumably there wouldn’t be enough money in the NSF pot to go around. There’s a lot that needs clarification on this funding schema.

    Or maybe the writer just isn’t clear on what Pentagon and DoD mean, as you suggest, Maximilian.

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