Minerva on the Cheap?

by Steven R. Corman

I just got off a blogger’s roundtable teleconference with Thomas Mahnken, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy Planning (hat-tip to Matt for the heads-up about it). He was discussing the Minerva program, outlined by Secretary Gates in a speech last month. Gates, a former university president, wants the social sciences more involved in helping fight the Bad Guys, so he is forming a program in the DoD that will fund consortia to do work in areas like:

  • Chinese military and technology studies
  • Iraqi terrorist perspectives
  • Religious extremism and ideology studies
  • Forming new disciplines (like “Kremlinology” during the Cold War)

My first reaction to the project is “Hooray! What took so long?” This seems to be part of a growing realization in the upper-reaches of the Department of Defense about the importance of soft power, which has been echoed by Gates, Joint Chiefs Chair Mullin, Deputy Under SecDef Michael Doran, and others.

But after hearing Mahnken describe the likely parameters of the program, I’m less optimistic that it will produce significant breakthroughs any time soon. He cited likely funding in the range of $2 million to $3 million for multi-year projects involving multiple universities. Once you take off the indirect costs charged by all major universities on funded research, divide by x years times y universities, and hire translators to deal with foreign language documents, you’re not going to be left with much to spend on researchers and grad assistants to do the actual research. And this isn’t even considering projects that might do innovative things involving computers, which are even more expensive.

So kudos to DoD for wanting to fund important social science research on terrorism and other national security matters. But if they want research that will break new ground in a timely manner, they need to kick up the funding levels a few notches. Social science research is economical compared to other DoD research efforts, but it would be a mistake to try to do it on the cheap. Even tripling the planned award amounts, the Minerva tab would be dwarfed by development costs for any of several weapons systems that were never even deployed.

UPDATE:

Sharon Weinberger over at Danger Room picked up my post. First, a clarification. Sharon said:

If universities are hoping for a big paycheck, they should think again.

To be clear, I did not write the post because I am hoping for a big paycheck. Rather I think DoD has identified an important area where work is needed whether I get any of the money or not. Any level of funding would be welcome compared with what is out there now. But I scoped out a possible multi-year, multi-university project at the award levels being suggested, and concluded that DoD could probably not achieve the results they want/need at those levels.

Second, I disagree with her conclusion that DoD should not be the body to fund this. As I noted in my post, the Pentagon brass seem to be the only ones in the government who publicly recognize the need for this kind of work, probably because they’re most directly suffering consequences of not having it. They also have the money, and the ability to act quickly.

Third, to answer a couple of her queries: Why doesn’t State do it? They don’t have money, as any number of people there have told me recently.

Why doesn’t NSF do it? Their mission is to fund basic research whereas this is applied research. Furthermore, their normal planning horizon is something like 3 years. They take a year holding workshops just to design a program, which then has to be approved, which then has to get into their normal submission cycle, which has RFPs out for 6 months, then they take another 6-9 months reviewing and making awards. So they could be a long term solution at best. Also, they would have to take money away from other programs they deem important to fund this. If they thought of this as an important problem they would have launched programs years ago.

So again, I am not complaining about DoD and I think they’re is doing a good thing. But their funding levels should be higher if they envision robust projects that can produce significant results in a timely manner.

5 Responses to “Minerva on the Cheap?”

Read below or add a comment...

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Looks like the DoD’s research to social science Professors was quite attractive…until they revealed today just how little funding they were going to be putting into it: http://comops.org/journal/2008/05/07/minerva-on-the-cheap/ [...]

  2. [...] on SecDef Gates’ ideas for the academic outreach Minerva Consortium. Reactions to it from COMOPS, Danger Room, Kings of War and Insurgency Research [...]

  3. [...] wrote about the Minerva program following a previous roundtable discussion with Mahnken in May.   In [...]

  4. [...] some serious money into social science research through the Minerva project.  Despite a somewhat disappointing five-year allocation that is less than the cost of two Joint Strike Fighters, the Secretary [...]