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Brown, military’s research connections up for debate

Broad range of faculty stances

Monday, November 10, 2008

The question of the military’s support for university research has been a sticking point in ethical discourse among academics at least since World War II. Then, researchers in the physical sciences engaged in intense debates over the ethical implications of their work in developing the atomic bomb.

Now, with the recent inception of a handful of new military programs for research funding and the growth of available military research money despite dwindling financial awards from other government agencies, the debate has once again flared up. As both participants in and critics of military-supported research programs, some Brown faculty have placed themselves at the center of this debate.

On the one hand, Professor of Anthropology Catherine Lutz has been an outspoken opponent of the military’s efforts to draw from university expertise, having published extensively on the subject. On the other hand, former Watson Institute fellow Michael Bhatia ’99, who was killed this May while participating in a military research program in Afghanistan, was a strong supporter of such efforts. Another perspective on the merits and pitfalls of such collaboration is held by Brown researchers in the physical sciences, who have been less present in public debates on the ethics of military work but have received approximately $8.6 million – six percent of Brown’s research budget – in fiscal year 2008 from the Department of Defense, according to University records.

An anthropological quandaryThe most noticeable upsurge in the discourse on the ethics of collaboration with the military has been among anthropologists. With two ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military has been exploring new ways to bring ethnographers into the fold of security research and operations.

As early as 2003, the Department of Defense began hiring anthropologists to find ways to ameliorate U.S. troops’ unfamiliarity with Iraqi culture and society. With a substantial monetary infusion into the program in 2007, the Human Terrain System began to reach out more broadly to American academics willing to be embedded with combat troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Through the program, participating scholars who do research in these places have the opportunity to conduct their work with the protection of U.S. security forces. In exchange, these specialists help soldiers navigate unfamiliar and uncertain terrain, serving as linguistic and cultural liaisons.

“The use of social science is necessary to and legitimate in military operations,” the program’s Web site states.

The Human Terrain System program sparked an intense and ongoing debate within the anthropological discipline. Many anthropologists took issue with the dangers of sharing their specialized knowledge with an organization that could endanger the people they study.

“Anthropologists are in an absolutely unique position,” said William Beeman, adjunct professor of anthropology. “We’re the people who really know the situation on the ground. We know the languages. We know the culture. So you really walk a fine line deciding to what degree you’re going to advise people.”

Beeman said he has done extensive consulting with the Department of Defense and other government agencies, and called the idea that social science researchers can and should abstain completely from military work both “unreasonable” and “unethical.”

Last year, the American Anthropological Association denounced the program on the grounds that researchers could not obtain informed consent from their subjects in a combat environment and could endanger them by providing information to the military. The association also formed a commission to reevaluate the ethics of anthropologists’ engagement with the military and intelligence communities.

“We do not recommend non-engagement, but instead emphasize differences in kinds of engagement and accompanying ethical considerations,” the commission said in its November 2007 report.

In September, the association approved amendments to its code of ethics.

“In relation with his or her own government, host governments, or sponsors of research, an anthropologist should be honest and candid. Anthropologists must not compromise their professional responsibilities and ethics and should not agree to conditions which inappropriately change the purpose, focus or intended outcomes of their research,” the revision stated.

Brown faculty enter the debateAt Brown, debates about the Human Terrain System took a more solemn turn after Bhatia’s death in May. Bhatia was a graduate student at Oxford in the department of politics and international relations. He had been preparing a dissertation on combatant motives of the Mujahideen, a militant group in Afghanistan.

“The program has a real chance of reducing both the Afghan and American lives lost, as well as ensuring that the US/NATO/(International Security Assistance Force) strategy becomes better attuned to the population’s concerns, views, criticisms and interests and better supports the Government of Afghanistan,” Bhatia wrote about the Human Terrain System in November 2007.

The American Anthropological Association is now undertaking a much more sweeping revision to its ethics guidelines to be concluded in late 2010. Those revisions will have to tackle not only the question of the Human Terrain System program, but also a host of other issues revolving around the rising amount of proprietary research being conducted by anthropologists, Beeman said. Beeman participated in the last major revision to the anthropological association’s code of ethics in the late nineties.

Beeman, a Middle East expert who has briefed both military personnel and policy makers, recalled being contacted by Army representatives for consultation before the invasion of Iraq. He said he told them the United States shouldn’t do it.

“They say ‘Well, that doesn’t help us much because we’re about to.’ Then you say ‘All right, look. I’ll come and talk to you and I’ll tell you why you shouldn’t do it.’ I can’t refuse those sorts of invitations because it wouldn’t be ethical,” Beeman recounted. “We can’t pass up those opportunities if we’re serious academics.”

The newest military program to draw on the expertise of social scientists in academia is the Minerva Initiative, a $50 million program announced by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in April. The initiative aims to channel military funds toward research on issues such as terrorist organization and ideologies, Chinese military technology and the strategic impact of cultural and religious change in the Islamic world. The first round of grants is expected to be announced this year.

“This is the first significant effort in 30 or 40 years to engage social sciences on a large scale by the Department of Defense,” said Thomas Mahnken, a deputy assistant defense secretary for policy planning, according to a Washington Post article published Aug. 3.

“There was an effort during (the Vietnam era) that ended up being ill-conceived and burned bridges on both sides, and, unfortunately, these attitudes have persisted,” Mahnken told the Post. “This effort is about rebuilding those bridges.”

Like the Human Terrain System, the Minerva Initiative – named after the virgin Roman goddess of both wisdom and warriors – has sparked a new wave of controversy within the anthropological discipline.

In a guest editorial titled “Selling Ourselves?” featured in the most recent edition of the journal Anthropology Today, Professor of Anthropology Catherine Lutz argued that the program will distract the research of anthropologists, who should avoid military funding.

“(The Minerva Initiative) represents an important attempt to garner ideological acceptance among anthropologists for doing military research,” Lutz wrote in the editorial. “This money could shape and distort our field in significant ways, as has happened with other disciplines that have been the recipients of Pentagon largesse.”

The journal edition that featured the editorial was devoted to a discussion of a number of different ways in which anthropologists and the military have recently come into contact and often collaboration.

“The military as a funding source often portrays itself as an un-self-interested or a national interest centered organization, but in fact has institutional interests in getting certain kinds of research results,” Lutz said.

Less concern in physical sciencesIn contrast to anthropologists’ sharp sensitivity to the ethical quandaries of military collaboration, researchers in other disciplines do not seem to have the same degree of concern. Beemen said that political scientists have a long tradition of collaborating in intelligence and security efforts. He added that political scientists frequently contest anthropologists’ objections to such work – and even question their patriotism.

In the physical sciences, academics also seem to be more comfortable doing research with the military. This may be due to the generally detached and often exclusively financial relationship that most science researchers have with military agencies, as most military grants to universities are for elementary research that may or may not underpin future developments in military laboratories or in the private sector. On the other hand, it could be the result of the Department of Defense’s strong – in certain fields almost ubiquitous – presence as a source of significant and reliable funding.

“The most successful groups in my area have military funding,” said Pascal Van Hentenryck, a professor of computer science whose research focuses on optimization – a field he said the military had been funding for at least 60 years – which includes designing emergency response systems. He and other science researchers and administrators interviewed by The Herald all echoed the idea that at least in some fields, the military was a necessary source of funding for scientific research.

Public debates on the ethics of research in Van Hentenryck’s field are not common, he said. But Van Hentenryck recalled ethical debates in computer science from his days as a graduate student, when he and his colleagues contemplated among themselves whether or not cooperative decisions to refrain from developing missile systems would halt their development.

Van Hentenryck said that his graduate students frequently raise the same questions, and that a responsive instructor should answer them.

He also stressed the fact that his research, like that of most other scientists, is useful in myriad fields, not just military matters, and that university researchers usually have little idea about how their ideas are eventually put into practice.

Vice President for Research Clyde Briant said that there is no ethical discourse about the sources of research funding at the university level, and that such debates would be personal ones among professors.

He said that professors at Brown tend to exhibit a high demand for knowledge about military funding opportunities, especially as other federal funding resources dry up.

Brown’s principal criteria for accepting research funding are that research can be neither proprietary – there can be no restrictions on publication rights – nor classified, according to Briant.

Director of Government Affairs and Community Relations Tim Leshan lobbies on behalf of Brown with the Department of Defense to ensure that policy makers in Washington know about the University’s research capabilities and that Brown professors are aware of the military funding available to them.

“While funding at the (National Institutes of Health) and the (National Science Foundation) has not kept up with inflation in the last five years,” Leshan said, “Department of Defense research funding has grown.”

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