Minerva Followup

by Steven R. Corman

Yesterday I participated in a Blogger’s Rountable discussion with Dr. Thomas Mahnken, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy, about the DoD’s Minerva program.  The audio from the roundtable was supposed to be up immediately after the event, but it’s not there  yet as I’m posting.  Perhaps it will be up by the time you read this.  The audio is now available here.

I wrote about the Minerva program following a previous roundtable discussion with Mahnken in May.   In the mean time the President of the American Anthropological Association complained about the program to OMB, asserting that the Pentagon has a “conflict of interest,” without explaining what that conflict is.  The letter said: “we believe it would be more efficient and more likely to produce authoritative results” if an agency like the NSF handled the review and awards. Now that’s a very interesting theory, that the agency handling the review and handing out the money–rather than the quality of the research itself–determines the authority of the results.

I think what’s really going on here is that that the anthropologists, who have an NSF division of their own, want to be sure they have control over the money (isn’t that a conflict of interest?).  Also many of their members are squeamish about taking money from the Big Bad DoD, and somehow the same money will be purified if it is routed through NSF.

In a press release yesterday, the AAA bragged that “the Pentagon was apparently listening” because they signed a Memo of Understanding (MOU) with the NSF.  Well, not exactly.  The MOU is about future NSF programs.  The original Minerva program is going ahead as planned, with DoD organizing the reviews.

In the roundtable discussion, Mahnken bristled at the suggestion that DoD is automatically unqualified to manage this process.  He pointed out that there are lots of smart people in the DoD with PhDs in relevant  social science disciplines from impressive schools.  Pressed on who would be doing the reviews, he said that these folks, and possibly academics from outside who are willing to sign non-disclosure agreements, would be involved.

But he also said Minerva is about basic research, not applied research.  That was not what I had assumed, and in my view this tends to undermine his arguments about the qualifications of the DoD personnel to judge proposals.  They are academically trained practitioners, not professional researchers who keep up with the state of the art in science.  DoD wouldn’t consider academics who had completed coursework at the War College qualified to do war planning, would they?

I asked how the NSF program would be different from the program described in the current BAA.  Mahnken referred me to the NSF press release on the matter (which is pretty darn close to information-free) and also said it could include things like workshops.  I’m guessing that the specifics of the NSF program are still being worked out, and nobody knows for sure yet if and how it will be different from the current BAA.  Interestingly, he hinted that there could be other things to come besides the BAA and NSF program.

I asked if they were on-track to conclude the review and awards process for the current BAA before they turn into pumpkins in January.  He said yes, they have the schedule and capacity to get everything done by the end of the year.

I also asked if it was possible that an incoming administration could reel-back the awards.  Mahnken said he doubted they would do that, but when I pressed the question he couldn’t rule it out.  Call me a cynic, but I think there is a non-trivial chance that awards made in 2008 by the Bush Administration will be rescinded, cut back, or otherwise altered in 2009 by an Obama or McCain administration once the Driving Force of the program, Sec. Gates,  is (presumably) not there to push it.  Anyone getting an award will be wise to not count their chickens prematurely.

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