July-August 2008 Issue • Volume 36 • Issue 6

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The Art and Social Science of War

Congressional hearing explores the role of social and behavioral sciences in national security

Colonel Schweitzer, Mark Weiss, and
David Segal (left to right) testified at a
congressional briefing on social science
research in security and defense.

"Know your enemy," commanded Sun Tzu in his 512 BC military treatise The Art of War.

As this edict suggests, there is as much social science to war as there is art. Fittingly then, the focus of an April 24 congressional hearing was on "The Role of the Social and Behavioral Sciences in National Security."

Sociologist David Segal was among the witnesses to testify at the joint committee hearing of the House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities, and the House Science and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Research and Science Education.

Segal, head of the University of Maryland’s Center for Research on Military Organization, spoke about the center’s status as the largest military sociology program in the nation and its areas of research focus: diversity in the military, military families, military operations, and the intersection of military and society.

Segal was referred by ASA science policy staff to the congressional offices organizing the hearing, and his participation as a witness was coordinated by the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA). In his discussion of current and emerging areas of research that can contribute to national security, Segal noted Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ "Minerva Consortia" proposal that he described to the academic community in April. Specifically, he proposed to expand the Pentagon’s support for research in the social sciences and humanities.

Secretary Gates discussed this proposal in an April 14 speech to the Association of American Universities, where he also addressed the public controversy over so-called "human terrain teams." These groups of social scientists in Iraq and Afghanistan were a popular topic at the congressional hearing, which, in addition to Segal’s participation, included testimony from Colonel Martin Schweitzer; Andre van Tilborg, the Department of Defense’s deputy undersecretary for science and technology; and the National Science Foundation’s Mark Weiss, the director of the division of behavioral and cognitive sciences in the directorate for social, behavioral and economic sciences.

Human Terrain System Controversy

In his testimony, Colonel Martin Schweitzer defined human terrain teams as "embedded cultural advisors" who assist commanders at every level by helping to maneuver within tribal communities to reduce risks to soldiers and to community members.

Despite the colonel’s resounding endorsement of the human terrain system (HTS), the program has inspired controversy in the academic community. In October 2007, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) issued a statement citing concerns over perceived ethical violations of the program. In the statement, the AAA executive board asserted that "the HTS program creates conditions which are likely to place anthropologists in positions in which their work will be in violation of the AAA Code of Ethics and that its use of anthropologists poses a danger to both other anthropologists and persons other anthropologists study."

These concerns were not specifically addressed, however, at the congressional hearing. Instead, van Tilborg testified that today’s military "must have the skills to work in novel, culturally complex situations" and that social sciences can inform and prepare forces for a "dynamic human-centered environment in which they must adapt to changing conditions and more fully understand human nature, and foreign cultures and societies."

Minerva Program

While not discussed at length by the witnesses, Weiss mentioned the still-developing Minerva program. All research conducted through the Minerva program is to be unclassified and publicly publishable. Two months following the hearing, the Army Research Office (ARO) in June issued a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) directly soliciting social science research proposals. It followed on Gates’ call for more Department of Defense (DOD) support of social science research and seeks proposals for research areas designated by the Secretary as Project Minerva. The "Minerva Research Initiative (MRI) is a DOD-sponsored, university-based social science research program focusing on areas of strategic importance to U.S. national security policy. It seeks to increase the Department’s intellectual capital in the social sciences and improve its ability to address future challenges and build bridges between the Department and the social science community," according to the BAA. Of special interest are multidisciplinary, multi-university team proposals.

Meanwhile, the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy is working closely with the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop a related component of the MRI, and the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, which houses ARO, are developing several pilot approaches for engaging the social science community. White papers (due July 25, 2008) and full proposals (due October 3) are solicited to address the following subjects:

  1. Chinese Military and Technology Research and Archive Programs;
  2. Studies of the Strategic Impact of Religious and Cultural Changes within the Islamic World;
  3. Iraqi Perspectives Project—analyzing archives from the Saddam Hussein era;
  4. Studies of Terrorist Organization and Ideologies; and
  5. New Approaches to Understanding Dimensions of National Security, Conflict, and Cooperation.

ARO estimates it will spend $50 million over five years for its portion of Minerva. Awards will range from $0.5-$3 million per year. But soon to come will be an announcement about the NSF portion of the program that solicits social science research that will be processed through NSF’s standard peer review system. Stay tuned! small_green


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