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Don’t Shutter The Minerva Initiative: Social Science Helps DoD « Breaking Defense

credit: Colin Clark

Quietly, and almost out of sight, the Defense Department is attempting to shutter a small, vibrant, cost-effective research program: the Minerva Research Initiative (MRI).

While other research endeavors seek to build new armaments or create physical systems to ensure America’s dominance in the battlespace, the MRI is a key funder of social sciences research in aid of national security. And while the current Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering is reported to not believe the research the MRI funds is “science,” letting the program go would be a significant loss for the Defense Department, while producing little financial benefit.

The MRI’s origins lie with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who announced the program in April 2008 at the Association of American Universities. Gates spoke about the successes of the Cold War in developing intellectual capital to support national security aims, including the creation of centers such as the RAND Corporation, and funding mechanisms such as the National Defense Education Act. Gates foresaw a consortium of universities providing support for research that directly advanced national aims along lines such as: Chinese military and technology studies, Iraqi and terrorist perspective projects, and religious and ideological studies. Long term aims of the project included the development of novel methods, harkening back to the development of game theory during the Cold War. The MRI was designed to be pan-service, providing intellectual capital for the DOD writ large. 

The significance of the program at the time can’t be understated. While other Pentagon entities fund social sciences research, the total level of funding had been extremely light for decades. Part of this had began during the Vietnam War, when then-Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield had passed a 1973 amendment (one of the so-called “Mansfield Amendments”) prohibiting DARPA from funding research that did have direct military applications. This resulted in more than $300 million in research, including all of DARPA’s social science portfolio, being transferred to the National Science Foundation (NSF), where it just languished in the absence of additional funding for that agency. Given the NSF’s determined, nonpartisan and basic-science stance, moreover, much of that work was never recovered.

Nick Evans

The MRI has been found to be an important addition to the military’s knowledge base. A National Academies of Science investigation into the program found that, during its first decade, the MRI made meaningful contributions to the body of social science research on topics related to national security. The same committee made recommendations to strengthen the leadership and dissemination of this knowledge, but by and large it received favorable reviews for its contribution to the national defense. 

The MRI is incredibly cost effective. In the 2020 fiscal year, the MRI received $11.4 million, or 0.2% of the $103 billion allocated to the Research, Development, Test and Evaluation (RDT&E) portion of the defense budget. As far as programs go, awarding 13 new projects per year around the country, constitutes a highly productive program by any measure: the average three-year project receives about $400,000 per year.

The 2019 announcement—for projects now on the chopping block—reflected social science projects that addressed key needs for the Defense Department. They included calls for new projects to investigate deterrence and competition between states in the twenty-first century, crucial to understanding the increasingly multipolar world in which Brazil, Russia, India and China exert increasing pressure on global affairs. The announcement also included calls for work into the human factors behind cybersecurity, and artificial intelligence.

These latter projects are particularly important, and the role of the MRI in their advancement can’t be understated. DARPA has spent two decades advancing research into artificial intelligence and cybersecurity. This research is winding its way towards testing and deployment, in everything from image recognition in surveillance, to brain computer interfaces for drone pilots. But the human factors and social psychological research into how these advances might impact warfighter performance haven’t kept pace. Yet, partly because of the because of the Mansfield Amendment, DARPA hasn’t funded social science research in any capacity. There’s a regular adage that the law doesn’t keep pace with technology; without programs like the MRI, it is guaranteed that our technical knowhow will be hobbled by a keen sense of how best to apply any technological advantage we maintain.

That makes MRI the last social sciences shop for the US military, and its funding an important element of our national security. Without these modest funds, there is a serious risk that we lose critical knowledge of how technology, doctrine and strategy interact in a complex world. In terms of the $740 billion DOD budget, the funds are a drop in the bucket of a wide range of activities by the Department, and they punch above their weight in terms of the output they create for the funding they receive. It’s essential they don’t get cut in the final budget, and that the department and Congress act to ensure that this small but critical element of DOD’s research stays active and productive for the coming year.

Nicholas Evans is an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He conducts research on emerging technologies and national security, with a particular focus on the life sciences and biosecurity.

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