Defense, higher ed. grow closer with controversial initiative

Though promises of change and new executive orders abound, one initiative from the Bush administration seems to be essentially the same in President ObamaâÄôs: a growing relationship between higher education and the Department of Defense. A research funding program called the Minerva Initiative carried over from the Bush administration with its creator, Department of Defense Secretary Robert Gates . The initiative provides $50 million in grants for social science research in fields such as the Chinese military, religious ideology and terrorist studies. Researchers in favor of the initiative call it a pragmatic relationship that may decrease casualties in war and aid national security. But researchers who oppose the initiative say DOD grants interfere with high ethical standards and may cause foreign governments and populations to shun research related to U.S. military intelligence.

More basic research

The seven winners of the first class of Minerva Initiative grants, chosen in December, will receive money as part of an increased basic research budget initiated by Gates. The studies span a wide range of research, from climate change in Africa to national security in China, and are underway in universities from California to Massachusetts. But regardless of location and subject matter, these basic research studies receive funding from the DOD, which some view as an improvement in national security and others view as a problem for academic freedom. After declining in recent years, defense spending on basic research has risen under Gates, Association of American Universities spokesman Barry Toiv said. This year, the DOD will spend $273 million more in basic research than last year, bringing the annual basic research budget to $1.7 billion . In his speech introducing the Minerva Initiative, Gates said the United States government needs to concentrate more on âÄúsoft power,âÄù which is âÄúthe elements of national power beyond the guns and the steel of the military.âÄù

The University and defense grants

Annually, the University of Minnesota receives about $10 million of its $600 million research budget in grants from the DOD. Tim Mulcahy, vice president for research, said basic research funding for the University increased during the Bush administration and will probably increase under Obama. And while the University didnâÄôt apply for the Minerva Institute grant, several other departments receive grants from the DOD, including grants for breast cancer research. âÄúThereâÄôs a lot of support for work in mechanical and electrical engineering that might be useful in developing life saving technologies,âÄù Mulcahy said. He added he would be surprised if the University doesnâÄôt participate in future research under the DOD, particularly with the departmentâÄôs increased interest in psychological studies.

Higher education questions relationship

AAU spokesman Toiv said tapping social science research will make the U.S. âÄúnational security apparatus more effective.âÄù But some social scientists view this relationship as ethically questionable and damaging to their research potential. Abdi Samatar, a University geography professor , said he could not work for the DOD because his proximity to the intelligence community would jeopardize his research. âÄúI personally will be for my own name not able to work for the DOD or the intelligence agencies, because that may make the people, whether itâÄôs in southern Africa or east Africa, that I work with suspicious of what I am doing,âÄù he said. Samatar is concerned that academic freedom, which he said is the ability to pursue research independently of any higher powerâÄôs consent, and without limits, would be squelched if a researcher worked under DOD supervision. In a move to assure academic freedom, the DOD partnered with the National Science Foundation , which was responsible for peer reviewing all 211 Minerva Initiative applications. This guaranteed that proposed research projects were the original ideas of the applicants and not the ideas of the DOD. But Samatar, who helped revamp the Human Science Research Council in post-Apartheid South Africa, said close association to the DOD, regardless of whether the researcher proposed the study, might hamper the researcherâÄôs ability to gather information. âÄúIt can carry quite a hefty cost for the academic community if they are seen as either too close to the DOD or too close to the intelligence agencies,âÄù he said.