September 1, 2008  

Why Gates is wrong

DoD’s plan to use research universities is flawed

Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently launched the Minerva Consortia, an initiative meant to involve American research universities in the global war on terrorism. The Defense Department and other government agencies will provide financial support to social scientists working on areas defined by the military as relevant to American national security. Gates claims that Minerva will rebuild the links between the defense establishment and American academia. These links, according to the defense secretary, were essential in the Cold War.

Gates forgets that the relationship between the defense establishment and American academia during the Cold War was highly problematic. Soviet studies may have profited from the financial bonanza provided by the connection with the American military establishment. Yet during the Vietnam War, the collaboration of American social scientists with the Defense Department and the intelligence community elicited a massive wave of student protests, with some faculty support, that denounced the “academic-military complex” and accused the leading American research universities of being the “fourth armed force.” In fact, in the 1960s and 1970s, the American academy became tainted by its connection with military projects. American social scientists conducting research in the so-called Third World were often viewed as spies working for the American intelligence community. Anthropological and sociological projects such as Camelot and Marginalidad, both focused on the analysis of left-wing political attitudes in Chile and Argentina, did little to dispel these allegations. Social scientists involved in projects with military and intelligence relevance did not care about the consequences of their research on the innocent people who were the subject of their studies. Even worse, this type of research did not turn the Third World away from Soviet propaganda or augment American soft power. People all over the Third World accepted Coca-Cola, blue jeans and rock-and-roll while anti-Americanism was rampant and growing, as it is now.

Gates believes Minerva will strengthen American soft power, but in fact, it will likely alienate American scholars further. The population of the countries targeted by projects financed by Minerva will probably regard American social scientists as spies, unworthy of trust.

Furthermore, Minerva is flawed in some of its research priorities. For example, it calls for the design and development of computational models to shed light on the process of decision-making and to decipher the way the brain manages social and culture cues. This effort attempts to tackle the nature of consciousness through computational models created by social scientists. Yet it is unlikely that social scientists, even with the help of sophisticated computers and vast amounts of money, will be able to crack the problem of consciousness.

The reality on the ground is also troubling. Area studies programs are certainly not expanding, and the number of foreign students in American universities has gone down. It is not obvious that, in the present political environment, the military and intelligence communities will be willing to accept critical points of view and guarantee the independence of academic research. Neither is it obvious that many in the academy will be eager to collaborate with the Defense Department after Iraq and Afghanistan.

There may be a better approach for involving the social sciences in the war on terrorism. What is really needed is a massive expansion of language programs, area studies programs, comparative cultural studies and policy-driven political science. At the same time, it is imperative to pierce the walls that separate military personnel and the academy. An equivalent program to the post-World War II G.I. Bill could ensure that young military officers and military personnel with real combat experience in anti-terrorism could attend first- and second-tier American universities to complete advanced degrees in sociology, history, political science, anthropology or cultural studies. In an academic setting, they would be exposed to a mixture of conflicting ideas and critical opinions. This would create a new kind of military and intelligence personnel capable of understanding the complexities of political and social challenges in an international context.

For this plan to succeed, American social science departments must also be willing to change. They must deal with contemporary issues of strategic importance and encourage students to pursue research projects that could illuminate the tough political and social questions that we are facing in our war against secular and religious fundamentalist movements. At the same time, this proposal would allow social scientists working in strategic areas to maintain an independent and critical stance.

The timing of Gates’ plan is in itself suspicious. Why is the Defense Department launching a large-scale initiative when the Bush administration is in its last days? It is wrong for a failed administration to set the policy agenda for the future.

Cora Sol Goldstein is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at California State University, Long Beach.