The results of U.S. national security policy since 9/11 speak for themselves. There’s little point for me to throw more gasoline on this fire. My bet is that had the results of the last eight years been better than they were, there would be no Project Minerva, the Department of Defense’s program to support social science research at universities.

Framing the problem

Some critics of Minerva frame the problem as one of the U.S. ruling class needing technical help in their quest for global hegemony. Seen this way Minerva is positioned as the latest episode in a history that began with the overthrow of Mossedegh in Iran, the 1954 CIA Guatemala coupProject Camelot, Vietnam, Iraq, and so on.

My take is different. Call it frame 2. Minerva is part of something larger going on in American society and higher education. There is a tremendous innovation in organizational forms because existing institutions have proven inadequate not just to meeting the challenges we face, but to even having a productive conversation about them. Consider the new organizational forms in recent years: new knowledge geographies around Rt. 128 in Boston and Silicon Valley in California; public-private partnerships in transportation, land use, and education to overcome the inertia of public administration; and new business links with the university in the form of cooperative research ventures and corporate backing of medical research, business management, and other cherry picked fields.

My view is that the right way to frame Minerva is as part of this larger transformation of American knowledge institutions to bring their capacities to bear on policy. This search for new forms encompasses private institutions like the university. But importantly, it also includes the government itself, which increasingly understands that its present knowledge structure isn’t likely to be any more successful in the future than it has been in the recent past. We have a situation where many academics believe the government needs help in seeing future challenges. At the same time we have the government itself pretty much saying the same thing. It is difficult for me therefore to reach any other conclusion but that Minerva is a move in the right direction.

Minerva as a program may disappear for any of a number of reasons. The defense budget might cut it out because of deficit pressures. Competitors — inside the Beltway “think tanks” and defense contractors in the studies and analysis companies – will try to keep their grip on the “think” business, with some in the Pentagon backing their claim that more academic stuff isn’t needed because existing institutions are doing just fine thank you.

But the need for some institution to overcome the intellectual (and organizational) chaos that passes for a conversation about national security in this country will not go away. Even if Minerva is killed it will come back in some other form, perhaps renamed. This is because existing institutions just don’t have the capacities, knowledge, and skills needed to manage the challenges ahead. This is the real significance of Minerva.

The past as prologue

New knowledge institutions have a history. But it’s one far more nuanced than holding up Project Camelot as the poster child of social science in thrall to the Pentagon. We might look more closely at this history as a way to make sense of the problems, or at least, as a different perspective on what these problems are.

In the Cold War the U.S. government poured millions of dollars into academic research, areas studies, and language training. We developed experts who actually knew something about the Middle East, Russia, and Southeast Asia. Of course this didn’t prevent disasters. Nothing ever does. But it allowed for the possibility that at least some of the disasters could have been avoided had leaders sought a broader assessment. In other words, we weren’t automatically doomed to failure because of ignorance combined with the singular American leadership trait of going with your immediate gut instinct over deliberation.

Think tanks were established, the Rand Corporation, the Hudson Institute, and others. Had these institutions not existed fundamental questions of nuclear stability and crisis management, and command and control would have been addressed by military staffs, wrapped in a cocoon of secrecy. The hot line and arms control would never have been deployed to restrain the arms race. These think tanks broke the government’s monopoly over how fundamental problems were framed in the first nuclear age. Compared to the alternatives (like having Curtis LeMay do it), this was a good thing.

One can question the independence of the Cold War academic institutes and think tanks. But compared to what? It’s often struck me as highly significant how virtually all of today’s think tanks focusing on national security have relocated to inside the Washington Beltway. In the Cold War none of them did. Being outside of the day to day hustle was a way to preserve their independence and judgment. They consciously located away from the daily action to get a better perspective on the issues.

So what?

Examining Project Minerva in what I have called frame 2 leads to conclusions and insights which are different than the standard criticisms. I make no claim to be right on these matters. But there is great value in having different frames for such an important topic, and not to automatically accept the first framework that comes along.

Most academics who might consider working on Project Minerva are not inside the Beltway. This may be a very good thing. This is an advantage of the university. Those experts who populate the inside-the-beltway institutions, whether in think tanks or contractors (and often there’s little difference between the two) by necessity have to focus on the urgent needs of Beltway Washington. This isn’t the same thing as focusing on the important problems. Most people I know in this world freely admit that they have little time to really think, because so much time is spent chasing the next little pellet of support.

The academy provides resources to deliberate about a problem or issue over an extended time. That’s what is needed now, not another 700 word quickie op-ed about a grand peace strategy for the Middle East coming from an out of office Assistant Secretary of State.

There is some concern that Project Minerva will distort funding in the social sciences in the academy. But I would make a different comparison. The spending on programs like this should be compared to the cost of a weapon. Let’s do the math. The current top estimates are that Minerva will spend $75 million over five years. According to the GAO 2,400 Joint Strike Fighters will cost $ 244 billion, or about $ 100 million per plane. Let me suggest something that may at first appear to be wildly subversive. Let’s buy 2,399 airplanes, and spend the $ 100 million saved on thoughtful assessments of what we are doing in the world when it comes to security and global order.

Finally, one concern I have has not been voiced in the various debates and criticisms over Minerva. My fear comes from the absence of some broker organization standing between the government and the scholarly community. Absent such an intervening structure, larger more interesting interdisciplinary academic projects are unlikely to happen. Even more dangerous is the likely move of beltway think tanks and defense contractors in the studies and analysis business to interpose themselves as intermediaries. There is already a trend for them to set up “domain knowledge specialists.” This means padding their proposals with a stable of academics who they invoke as domain experts. If they are lucky, the academic specialists might get invited to a kick off free lunch where they are touted to clients as a way to bolster their credentials. Their larger impact, however is minimal.

I am not sure how to handle this. Maybe the SSRC should study the topic. Perhaps the SSRC itself could serve the role as some kind of broker organization to prevent these negative consequences. Or perhaps new organizational forms based on the Internet – a virtual think tank, maybe – might be established to encourage interdisciplinary research. This has happened in other academic areas. But the subject of broker organizations needs to be more carefully considered if Minerva is not to be window dressing on business as usual.

Project Minerva creates more opportunities than it does problems. The problems, however are real and must be faced. My view, however, is that they are likely to be different than the ones usually imagined, and for this reason a more sober assessment of broader trends in the organizational forms of knowledge is needed if we are to avoid past mistakes.

See David Nugent’s essay on this forum titled “Operations Other than War: The Politics of Academic Scholarship in the 21st Century.”