Researchers fear Pentagon will infiltrate anthropology

US military largesse threatens academic integrity, claim anthropologists. John Gill reports

September 25, 2008

Anthropologists fear that increasing involvement by the US military in funding research is tainting the independence of their discipline.

The concerns centre on the Minerva Research Initiative, to which the Pentagon supplies millions of dollars in funding for research by anthropologists and other social scientists on issues of US "national security".

The latest edition of journal Anthropology Today warns that the level of funding available through Minerva may soon outstrip "civilian" funding in the field.

"This will undoubtedly influence our research agenda and restrict the public sphere in which we work.

"If the Pentagon wants high-quality research, why not commission this from reputable and experienced civilian research agencies who should be able to manage peer review at arm's length from the Pentagon?" the journal asks in an editorial.

Launched by the US Department of Defence, Minerva has already funded research into areas such as "ideological trends in Islam" and "Chinese military and technology research".

The initiative is operated by the Pentagon and the National Science Foundation (NSF), which was brought in as a partner this year after lobbying by the American Anthropological Association, which was concerned by a lack of peer review in the scheme.

However, Gustaaf Houtman, editor of Anthropology Today, said this peer review was still not independent, and the majority of the funding was distributed by the Pentagon, rather than the NSF.

He said: "They are trying to buy up universities. It's already happening in science and other areas, but as anthropologists we've managed to stay out of this in the past. Now they really want us, and they can buy lock, stock and barrel any university they want, which is what they are beginning to do through these grants. This is the way they are going to get us."

Catherine Lutz, professor of anthropology at Brown University, said the Minerva funding was "an attempt to garner ideological acceptance among anthropologists for doing military research".

Writing in the journal, she says: "Much larger sums of military funding could be forthcoming in the future, and this money could shape and distort our field in significant ways, as has happened in other disciplines that have been the recipients of Pentagon largesse."

Dr Houtman said the decision to throw cash at anthropology followed the US military's failure to recruit experts from the field for its "Human Terrain" system in Iraq.

This placed social scientists within military units with the stated aim of helping soldiers understand local populations, but was largely resisted as unethical by anthropologists.

Thomas Mahnken, US deputy assistant secretary of defence for policy planning, responded to the concerns set out in the journal by insisting that it was "our intent to provide scholars with the opportunity to tell the Department of Defence what research areas are out there that need to have more visibility".

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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