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SCIENCE 6 MARCH 2020 • VOL 367 ISSUE 6482 1065



he U.S. Department of Defense (DOD)
wants to kill a unique social science
research program meant to help it
understand nontraditional threats
to national security, from the rapid
growth of China’s technological prow-
ess to radical Islamic terrorism.
The $20 million Minerva Research Initia-
tive is in jeopardy after Defense Secretary
Mark Esper ordered a review that identified
some $5 billion worth of programs deemed
less essential to DOD’s mission. Michael
Griffin, DOD undersecretary for research
and engineering, has made developing hy-
personic weapons a top priority, and DOD
watchers say Minerva doesn’t meet
Griffin’s definition of what his of-
fice, which controls a $16.1 billion
research budget, should fund. In its
2021 budget request, DOD proposed
cuts that could lead to the program’s
demise, but Congress could save it.
“The current undersecretary
doesn’t believe that Minerva is sci-
ence,” says a Democratic congressio-
nal staffer. “He thinks it’s soft, and
his priorities are elsewhere.”
The Minerva program began un-
der former President George W.
Bush. “Too many mistakes have
been made over the years because
our government and military did
not understand—or even seek to
understand—the countries or cultures
we were dealing with,” then–Defense
Secretary Robert Gates said in an April 2008
speech announcing the program.
Gates envisioned a role for researchers in
promoting “soft power—the elements of na-
tional power beyond guns and steel.” He also
hoped that Minerva would improve what
he called the often “hostile” relationship be-
tween DOD and social scientists.
A 2019 evaluation by the U.S. National
Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and
Medicine found that Minerva has met
both those goals over the past decade. Its
111 grants—which now average $1.5 million
over 3 years—“have produced a substantial
body of research in a variety of areas of im-
portance to national security ... [and have]
had a positive impact on the amount of dia-
logue between DOD and the social science
community.” But the findings from Minerva

projects, it added, have been slow to reach the
intended audience of policymakers within
the Pentagon and commanders in the field.
Although Minerva projects represent a
tiny fraction of DOD’s $2.6 billion invest-
ment in basic research, they have gotten out-
size media attention. One example is work
conducted by researchers including cultural
anthropologist Scott Atran of the University
of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and the University
of Oxford. It probes the psychology of sui-
cide bombers, for example, by using brain
scans to track how people react to perceived
threats to their deeply held values.
Economist Eli Berman of the Univer-
sity of California, San Diego, has worked
on Minerva projects that embedded social

scientists with U.S. military leaders in Af-
ghanistan to seek ways to strengthen local
institutions and combat insurgency move-
ments. “The goal was always to be useful
right away,” Berman says.
As social scientists, Minerva grantees
focus on promoting understanding and
preventing conflicts, often through inter-
disciplinary teams. For example, one proj-
ect sent anthropologists to do ethnographic
studies of Indonesian communities, allowed
sociologists to conduct attitudinal surveys
in West Africa, and funded computer scien-
tists to analyze online data related to social
movements in several regions of the world.
The result was a web-based tool, called
LookingGlass, that allows authorities to
track emerging threats by displaying infor-
mation about these movements in real time.

That approach contrasts with the Penta-
gon’s traditional emphasis on tapping basic
research to improve its chances of winning
battles. “Minerva is not going to support
the science needed to develop the tools for
projects that the undersecretary considers a
priority, like hypersonic weapons,” says Erin
Fitzgerald, who directed Minerva for 5 years
and is now a research administrator at the
University of Maryland, College Park. “But
it might help us avoid the need to deploy
those weapons.” As Atran puts it: “If supe-
rior machines and hardware were the way
to win wars, we’d have been out of Afghani-
stan in 2002 and Iraq in 2003. But it’s peo-
ple. And we still don’t understand them.”
Griffin declined comment, but a DOD
spokesperson says Esper’s review al-
lowed Griffin’s office to “scrutinize
and revector our fiscal year 2021 bud-
get request to align more directly with
the department’s modernization pri-
orities.” Asked specifically about the
value of Minerva, the spokesperson
said, “The question was not, ‘Is this
a good effort?’ but rather, ‘Is a dollar
spent on this effort more important to
our military capability than spending
that same dollar on” a priority area?
DOD’s proposed budget would
put Minerva on a path to a rapid
demise. It would eliminate the
$11 million contribution from the
basic research office, leaving Mi-
nerva with some $4 million that
Congress has recently earmarked
for research on how other govern-
ment are using social media to undermine
U.S. institutions and sway public opinion
and to examine the threat posed by China,
Russia, North Korea, and Iran.
The Navy and Air Force could continue to
fund projects they think are useful, although
observers say they are likely to bow out once
money from the basic research office disap-
pears. (The Navy has proposed spending
$3 million in FY2021; the Air Force doesn’t
break out Minerva but has invested roughly
$2 million annually in recent years.)
Minerva backers are hoping its track
record will persuade Congress to protect
the program. “Our biggest concern is to
make sure that the research doesn’t stop,”
the Democratic staffer says. “We think that
Minerva is so important in helping DOD
achieve its mission.” j

Afghan security forces trained by the U.S. military inspect travelers
at a checkpoint near the Pakistani border.

By Jeffrey Mervis


Pentagon’s social science research faces threat

Minerva initiative falls out of favor in latest DOD review of spending priorities


Published by AAAS
Free download pdf