If global society breaks down, the Pentagon wants to be ready.
The Minerva Initiative might sound like a villainous science fiction organization, but it's actually a Department of Defense program to fund university research "about sources of present and future conflict" in order to prepare the country for potential conflict down the road. Some social scientists aren't happy seeing their research militarized.
This background: The program, formed in the wake of the world banking crisis in 2008, is focused on civil unrest, often funding projects that look at why and how people mobilize for change, both peaceful and violent. It has a budget of nearly $18 million this year, small for a Pentagon project but massive for many social scientists.
Twelve projects received Minerva funding this year, including a Cornell study analyzing Twitter posts and conversations to find "tipping points" in revolts like Egypt's in 2011, a Texas A&M study of how marriage laws and norms affect social and political conflict, and a University of Washington study of how major political movements originate and "what their characteristics and consequences are."
What's the problem? As reported in the Guardian, an internal Minerva Initiative memo defined the project's main goals as "develop[ing] capabilities that are deliverable quickly" and creating "models and tools that can be integrated with operations."
This desire to find quick results that can be put to military use is exactly what organizations like the American Anthropological Association (AAA) have expressed concern about.
In a letter to the federal Office of Management and Budget, AAA president Setha Low said, "We are deeply concerned that funding such research through the Pentagon may pose a potential conflict of interest and undermine the practices of peer review that play such a vital role in maintaining the integrity of research in the social science disciplines." Low instead urged research funding to be diverted through civilian agencies like the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and National Endowment for the Humanities.
Other academics have warned against the militarization of social science.
"When you looked at the individual bits of many of these projects they sort of looked like normal social science, textual analysis, historical research, and so on, but when you added these bits up they all shared themes of legibility with all the distortions of over-simplification," Saint Martin's University anthropology professor David Price told the Guardian. "Minerva is farming out the piece-work of empire in ways that can allow individuals to disassociate their individual contributions from the larger project."
Minerva's millions may be much more than most academics are used to seeing, but critics like the AAA and Price are worried that the funding isn't worth the rushed science and forced military application.