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Engaged skepticism about Minerva

5 August, 2008

American Anthropological Association president Setha Low recently held a conference call with media reps to discuss the AAA’s position on Minerva developments.  The major development is the recently announced partnership between the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) to provide rigorous academic review of the grant applications submitted for Minerva funding (currently there’s $50 million to be allocated over 5 years). Causal relationships are hard to pinpoint, but it does look like the DoD-NSF partnership may be at least partly the result of Low’s and the AAA’s early critique of the Minerva announcement, to the effect that social science proposals should be peer reviewed by scholars outside of the military. (Other anthropologists, like Hugh Gusterson, have also voiced skepticism.)

I had promised to listen in on the 4am (Sydney time) conference call, but I missed it because of a sick kid, so I can’t report back here on the call itself, but I can say that it’s been picked up in a couple of places, and the reporting hasn’t been altogether accurate — for example, Wired reported that Low’s skepticism was directed towards the Human Terrain System, when she was actually talking about Minerva, and the AAA PR person Damon Dozier has responded with a letter of correction (pasted at the bottom of this post because I can’t find where it’s been published — thanks to Kerry Fosher for sending this).

The issue was also covered in the Washington Post which quotes American University anthropologist David Vine as being skeptical, like so many others, about U.S. military funding for social science research. The argument in favor of Minerva is that this is an opportunity to direct foreign policy thinking in completely new ways.  The argument against is that research selected for funding by the military will only answer and ask certain questions, and that this funding influence will skew the very questions that we social scientists think to ask.

But according to the Washington Post article, Vine proposes doing something to test which of these perspectives will more accurately characterize which direction the influence will run between Minerva and academia:

Vine said he would apply for funding. His topic: how overseas military bases affect relations with other nations, ‘how they’ve damaged our international reputation and how they’ve damaged the lives of people around the world.’

What a great idea.  Instead of just voicing skepticism about the Minerva effect on social science, Vine is going to actually test it, to see what gets funded.  Of course having just one person applying for Pentagon funding to do research that’s skeptical of Pentagon policy might make for nice anecdotal evidence, but it won’t produce reliable data about what kind of research is getting funded and what kind of proposed research gets rejected.  But if the NSF would make publicly available data on both funded and unfunded applications, then we might in a matter of months be able to say something solid about the effect of Pentagon money on critical social science research.

So: skeptics, start preparing your Minerva proposals to critique U.S. foreign policy!

–L.L. Wynn


Damon Dozier’s letter in response to Wired blog:

Aug 1, 2008

Dear David Axe:

This letter is written in response to your recent article,  “Anthropologists Launch ‘Human Terrain’ Probe,” posted in the Wired Danger Room blog on August 1, 2008 at 7:00 a.m. We at the American Anthropological Association would like to both inform your readers about some of the work being done by the AAA regarding the intersection of anthropology and the military and more importantly, correct a few unfortunate factual inaccuracies related in the body of your post.

The AAA Ad Hoc Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the US Security and Intelligence Communities (CEAUSSIC) was convened in the summer of 2006 to respond to AAA member concerns about certain job solicitations for anthropologists to work with the military. The original mandate of the Commission was to provide recommendations on:

a. The varied roles that practitioners and scholars of anthropology currently assume within intelligence and national security entities;

b. The state of AAA’s existing guidelines and guidance on the involvement of anthropologists in intelligence/national security-related activities; and

c. The key ethical, methodological, and practical/political challenges faced by the discipline and the AAA in its current and future engagement in intelligence/national security.

The Commission issued its original report in November of 2007. While the report provided extended commentary on the forms of anthropological engagement, kinds of disciplinary practice, work environments, institutional contexts and the ethical implications of work with the military, the Commission report did not address in detail the HTS program. There were extensive discussions, however, about forms of engagement that raised the most red flags for anthropologists. The full text of the report is posted in the AAA website, located at

The Commission was recently renewed for an additional two years, and, as part of its work, is reviewing situational ethics and the AAA Code of Ethics. Part of this work includes providing a framework for informed evaluation and discussion of many cross-cutting concerns, including the Army’s Human Terrain System program. This work should not be confused with October 2007 Executive Board statement on HTS.

The work of the Commission is not to “launch probes” into any military or intelligence program, but rather to inform the anthropological community on a range of issues including disclosure, free and informed consent, dissemination of results, and other issues GENERALLY intersecting between anthropology and the work of the military.

While HTS is one of the issues that prompted a review of the AAA code of ethics, there are other issues being considered in the review of the ethics code.

The comments attributed to Setha Low regarding research “may be slanted by the needs of the Department of Defense,” wide distribution of research, and concerns about peer review noted in the article were NOT made in relation to the HTS program, but rather were comments made in relation to the DoD Minerva program, and its recent partnership with the National Science Foundation.

We ask that you make this information available to your readership. If you have any questions, comments or concerns, please feel free to contact Damon Dozier, Director of Public Affairs at (703) 528-1902 ext. 3008.


Damon Dozier
Director of Public Affairs
American Anthropological Association

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Sandra permalink
    6 August, 2008 9:28 am

    So if I understand Damon Dozer correctly, what he seems to be saying is that the American Anthropological Issociation’s investigation and official Probe of Human Terrain Systems is OFFICIALLY SECRET and it must not be discussed in public until the committee has finished it’s work. In fact, the AAA can’t even admit that probe is underway. Makes good sense to keep it secret until the investigation is concluded

  2. 6 August, 2008 4:03 pm


    I was on that conference call and took good notes. If Low’s comments were intended to apply only to Minerva, she certainly didn’t say so. In my questions I asked about all military programs involving the social sciences, and that includes HTS.

    It’s clear now that AAA has a very specific agenda it’s pushing regarding military programs. I’m not entirely clear what that agenda is. But one thing’s clear: if you’re going to engage the press, you need to learn how to run a teleconference. The AAA conference call was, at its best moments, hopelessly overburdened with jargon and entirely too rigid in its format. It’s no wonder there has been confusion in the aftermath.

    But since I asked what I thought were clear questions, and got what sounded like clear answers, I’m sticking by my reporting. I can’t allow a public affairs flack to rewrite a conversation after the fact.


    David Axe

  3. 6 August, 2008 4:40 pm

    Thanks for weighing in, David. So can I ask you a question? What’s the jargon that we anthropologists can’t stop ourselves from using at inopportune moments? Seriously, I want to know, because I’m chronically jargony myself and I’m trying to train myself out of it.

    Maybe that’s a hopeless question, though, since you’re more likely to just tune out the jargon rather than remember it well enough to repeat it later.


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