Budget cut threatens novel social science research program at Department of Defense | Science

Afghan security forces trained by the U.S. military keep watch near the site of a suicide attack in Kabul this month.

Omar Sobhani/REUTERS

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) wants to kill a unique social science research program that has helped it understand nontraditional threats to national security, from the rapid growth of China’s technological prowess to the mind of a suicide bomber.

DOD’s $740 billion budget request for fiscal year 2021 drops core funding for the $20-million Minerva Research Initiative. Michael Griffin, DOD undersecretary for research and engineering, put Minerva on the chopping block as part of a review by Defense Secretary Mark Esper that identified some $5 billion worth of programs deemed less essential to DOD’s mission. Griffin, who oversees a $16.5 billion research budget, has made developing hypersonic weapons his top priority, and DOD watchers say Minerva doesn’t meet Griffin’s definition of what his office should be funding.

“The current undersecretary doesn’t believe that Minerva is science,” says a Democratic congressional staffer familiar with the program. “He thinks it’s soft, and his priorities are elsewhere.”

A two-way street

The program, which represents a tiny fraction of DOD’s $2.6 billion investment in basic research, began in the waning days of the George W. Bush presidency. Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates saw it as a way to enhance—and maybe even avoid—the military’s deployment of lethal force in waging war. “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,” Gates said in an April 2008 speech announcing the program.

Gates envisioned a role for researchers in promoting “soft power—the elements of national power beyond guns and steel.” He also hoped Minerva would improve what he called the often “hostile” relationship between DOD and social scientists by creating a cadre of researchers willing and able to use their analytical skills to help defend the nation.

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 grants—which average $1.5 million over 3 years—“have produced a substantial body of research in a variety of areas of importance to national security,” the report concluded. Minerva, it said, has also had “a positive impact on the amount of dialogue between DOD and the social science community [and] the number of social science researchers with an interest in research relevant to national security.”

At the same time, the report concluded that the findings from Minerva projects have been slow to reach their target audiences—both policymakers within the Pentagon and field commanders eager for suggestions on how best to deploy their resources and work with local leaders. It wasn’t for lack of trying, however, says Eli Berman, an economist at the University of California, San Diego, whose work has been supported by several Minerva grants.

For example, one of Berman’s projects gave social scientists a chance to advise U.S. military leaders in Afghanistan on their efforts to strengthen local institutions and counter insurgency movements. That advice, he says, could have included suggestions on the best way to deploy cellphones.

“The goal was always to be useful right away,” Berman explains. “But the program also faced tremendous obstacles.”

Internal tensions

One major obstacle involves Minerva’s complicated relationship with the rest of DOD’s bureaucracy. Gates intentionally placed it within the office of the secretary of Defense on the grounds that the problems it would address were not unique to any one branch of the military. And it was overseen by his policy shop. The services—in particular, the Army, Navy, and Air Force—were intended to be the end users, and they chipped in their own money to fund projects that appealed to them.

However, that management structure led the branches to feel less invested in the program. And although the services were later given a larger role in deciding what topics Minerva would explore and what proposals to fund, in 2018 the Army withdrew its support.

Minerva also represents a different type of research than what DOD typically funds in its basic research account, notes Erin Fitzgerald, who directed Minerva for 5 years and is now a research administrator at the University of Maryland, College Park. “It’s not that there is no social science research in that budget,” she says. “But most of it goes to things that help to make the military stronger, that is, on better ways to break things and kill people.”

In contrast, she says, Minerva has given interdisciplinary teams of researchers a chance to do a deep dive into the behavior of populations involved in conflicts with the hope of better understanding what makes them tick. She cites a project aimed at countering radicalism in the Muslim world that sent anthropologists to Indonesia to do ethnographic studies, allowed sociologists to carry out surveys in West Africa, and gave computer scientists a chance to collect and analyze online data about social movements in several regions. The result was a web-based tool, called LookingGlass, that can display information about these movements in real time.

“Minerva is the highest-profile social science research program within the [military’s] basic science budget,” Fitzgerald says. “But it’s not going to support the science needed to develop the tools for projects that the undersecretary considers a priority, like hypersonic weapons. On the other hand, it might help us avoid the need to deploy those weapons.”

Thomas Mahnken helped Gates get Minerva off the ground as deputy assistant secretary for policy. Now head of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington, D.C. think tank, Mahnken thinks that the high churn rate in the Pentagon’s senior leadership is also a factor in Minerva’s precarious status.

“The group that stood up the program is no longer there, so the sense of ownership has been diminished over time,” he says. “The role of policy within DOD has also diminished. Without those voices speaking in support of it, it’s easy to see why Mike Griffin would decide that Minerva is not worth keeping.”

Griffin declined to comment, but a DOD spokesperson says Esper’s review allowed his office to “scrutinize and re-vector our Fiscal Year 2021 budget request to align more directly with the Department’s modernization priorities. We are making these tough choices in order to properly support and resource the warfighter.”

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 National Defense Strategy modernization priority area?’”

What’s next

DOD’s budget request proposed putting Minerva on a path to a rapid demise. It would eliminate the $11 million contribution to the program from the basic research office. That would leave Minerva with some $4 million that Congress earmarked in the past two spending bills for research relating to foreign malign influences and, specifically, potential threats from China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran. The Navy and Air Force would be free to continue supporting projects, although observers say they are likely to bow out once money from the basic research office disappears. (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.)

And there’s more bad news for researchers in the budget request. Existing projects currently scheduled to continue into FY2021 and beyond would be terminated early. And it’s not clear if DOD would fund any proposals, now under review, that were submitted in response to a program announcement put out last year.

The next step will be up to Congress. “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.”

The aide urged researchers to make the case for continuing the program, arguing both for the value of the research and how it has helped create a roster of social scientists interested in working with DoD. Berman says that outreach is already happening at his campus and other institutions.

In the meantime, scientists now being funded shouldn’t panic, says Fitzgerald of Maryland, which has received several Minerva awards. “If I were a [principal investigator], I’d be nervous but not despondent.” Congress could block DOD’s plan, she notes, adding that “you want to keep moving forward in case the program is saved.”

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