Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Minerva Project: Eggheads and Ideas

The New York Times reports that the Pentagon has launched a project to engage U.S. scholars in developing responses to national security threats. The project name is Minerva, after the Roman goddess of wisdom and warriors. The goal is to harness "soft power" in the effort to understand and quell threats to national security as a complement to military force. The Pentagon has long sponsored private sector scholarly research. Minerva is the first large scale project of its kind since the Vietnam war. Through Minerva, the Pentagon will award $50 million in grants over five years.

The reaction to Minerva in the scholarly community has been mixed. While some researchers welcome the new grant source, others think that Minerva might create an unholy alliance between the academy and the Defense Department. For example, Prof. Hugh Gusterson, an anthropoligst at George Mason University told the NYTimes: “I am all in favor of having lots of researchers trying to figure out why terrorists want to kill Americans. But how can you make sure you get a broad spectrum of opinion and find the best people? On both counts, I don’t think the Pentagon is the way to go.”

The Pentagon tapped the American Association of Universities to help design Minerva. (Penn State University President Graham Spanier is the current chairman.) In a speech to the AAU in April, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said: “The key principle of all components of the Minerva Consortia will be complete openness and rigid adherence to academic freedom and integrity.” The word "elitist" is not an epithet, despite current presidential campaign rhetoric. Gates quoted historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s statement that the United States “must return to the acceptance of eggheads and ideas” to meet national security threats.

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