Blogger’s Roundtable on DOD’s Minerva Consortium


Roundtable discussion with Dr Thomas Mahnken, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy Planning

Thanks to Matt Armstrong at Mountain Runner who recommended me I just took part in a DoD bloggers roundtable (linked to above) on the Minerva Consortia which Secretary Gates recently announced. If you’re an academic interested in defence and security research this is a big thing. The gist of it is excerpted below (read the whole thing here The Minerva Consortia):

America today faces more, and more complex, challenges than at any time in its recent past. From the rise of new powers to trends in the environment, demographics, and culture to violent extremism, we will increasingly grapple with unprecedented change. To address these shared challenges, Americans, and their government, need a better understanding of the factors and causes behind them, what they mean, and what the future might bring. We in the Department of Defense propose a new initiative to help develop that understanding: government-supported research consortia that will draw upon the knowledge, ideas, and creativity of the nation’s universities. The Minerva Consortia will provide important and lasting professional contributions to a variety of disciplines, and a critical public service.


Minerva’s core approach is to encourage the formation of diverse consortia to conduct original research in a range of topic areas. Each topic or question will be framed and approached in a fashion appropriate to it and from a range of perspectives. We seek teams of scholars across universities and colleges who will tackle a question or topic across disciplines, coordinated by a lead institution. Participants need not be U.S. citizens.

Initial Topic Areas and Products

1. Chinese Military and Technology...

2. Studies of the Strategic Impact of Religious and Cultural Changes within The Islamic World

3. Iraqi Perspectives Project...

4. Studies of Terrorist Organization and Ideologies

5. Exploratory Areas for Research

Some observations:

  • The call is not exclusive to US institutions and scholars which is excellent because chances are that the problems which vex the DoD also vex their allies; that being the case,
  • compelling insights and possible solutions may be found abroad; so,
  • good for the DoD to recognize this with an international approach.

I was caught offguard by having the first question on the Roundtable. I managed to say ‘gee, good idea, we’ll send you a proposal’ which wasn’t a question as such, but an important point nonetheless. The fellow from Blackfive had a good question, I thought, about the gap between the military and academia (epitomized of late by the brouhaha over anthropologists and the Army’s human terrain system which we’ve written about here at KOW). The importance of getting the military into civilian educational settings was noted. This is another issue which is of much interest to me (see Pedagogy for the Long War). I was glad that he brought it up because I think this is a two-way street. Yes, the army needs to go Beyond the Cloister, as Petraeus put it; but universities need to think more creatively about how they can educate ‘beyond the cloister’ too. Our on-line Masters degree MA War in the Modern World is an example of how that can be done, so I was happy to get a plug in for that in the discussion. The British Army education branch has quite a good motto for our times: ‘train for certainty, educate for uncertainty.’ I think it expresses pretty much Gates’ message and intent with the Minerva programme. I welcome the initiative.

Sharon Weinberger at Wired’s Danger Room was less impressed: Pentagon’s Academic Outreach, Big Talk Little Cash Fair points, actually. The amount of money being stumped up is not huge–it is no Manhattan Project. It’s the defence department’s money being coughed up whereas arguably it should be coming from other agencies. And the appetite of universities for cash is so large (higher education is not cheap to operate, particularly to staff) that a few million is not going to go terribly far. All I’d say is a/ it’s a start, b/ other departments should be doing this, the DoD should be commended for actually doing it, and c/ if the funding is carefully targeted on issues which are otherwise extremely difficult to get funding councils to support then it could make a useful impact.

On the last point, it occurs to me that the initial topic areas are broad and what’s missing is, in my view, the biggest problem we now face: an understanding of how to conduct influence/information operations and propaganda in the 21st century. That’s the issue that is most pressing and it exists at every level of war from the grand strategic to the section level tactical. It applies ‘over there’ as well as at home. It’s a bit frustrating since Gates and Rumsfeld before him have both expressed the same frustration and incredulity about the situation they find themselves in:

Robert Gates: …public relations was invented in the United States, yet we are miserable at communicating to the rest of the world what we are about as a society and a culture, about freedom and democracy, about our policies and our goals. It is just plain embarrassing that al-Qaeda is better at communicating its message on the internet than America.

Donald Rumsfeld: Our enemies have skillfully adapted to fighting wars in today’s media age, but for the most part we, our country, our government, has not adapted. Consider that the violent extremists have established media relations committees—these are terrorists and they have media relations committees that meet and talk about strategy, not with bullets but with words. They’ve proven to be highly successful at manipulating the opinion elites of the world. They plan and design their headline-grabbing attacks using every means of communication to intimidate and break the collective will of free people.

The US and the UK have been fought to a standstill in two theatres by global jihadists not because they’re better at moving metal than we are but because they’re better at the purposeful shaping of the ideas and beliefs of others to warlike effect. That’s the cutting edge for insurgency research.


One Response to “Blogger’s Roundtable on DOD’s Minerva Consortium”

  1. Links for 8 May 2008 « ubiwar Says:

    […] As I was pondering whether GWOT is war or not in a sweaty exam hall yesterday afternoon, I was missing the DoD bloggers’ roundtable with Thomas Mahnken, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy Planning on SecDef Gates’ ideas for the academic outreach Minerva Consortium. Reactions to it from COMOPS, Danger Room, Kings of War and Insurgency Research Group. […]

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