STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The U.S. Defense Department is ending a program that tried to use academic research to solve complex issues in war zones. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports on that program's demise.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: It was called the Minerva Research Initiative, and it began in 2008, at a time when the U.S. was trying to bring the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan under control. The idea was to call on anthropologists and other social scientists to help make those missions more successful.
DAVID PRICE: Counterinsurgency theory requires that you have some knowledge of the culture that you're trying to occupy or control in some way.
BRUMFIEL: David Price is a professor of anthropology at St. Martin's University in Washington state. He studies the history of social science's involvement with the defense establishment.
PRICE: You know it's been a mixed relationship of anthropologists and other social scientists working for the military.
BRUMFIEL: Project Minerva was designed to bring academic brainpower to military problems. Grants would be issued to university researchers so that they could study topics like Islamic extremism or terrorist networks. Price says its military roots made it controversial among anthropologists, and he thinks Minerva never really did deliver on the promise of using social science to fundamentally reshape the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
PRICE: The notion that you can get an occupied population to somehow welcome this occupation or see it in their best interest, that's a lot of weight to put on culture when, very logically, people know that they're being occupied.
BRUMFIEL: Over the years, Minerva shifted its focus. More recent grants studied Russian disinformation campaigns and how to strengthen Western military alliances, until this year. That's when the military announced it was ending the program. In a written statement, the Pentagon says Minerva was eliminated to, quote, "align more directly with the department's modernization priorities."
PRICE: Robot time - less money for humans, more money for robots - is what I read out of that.
BRUMFIEL: Under the Trump administration, the Pentagon has shifted its research efforts towards things like hypersonic missiles, advanced weapons it believes can help to counter Russia and China. But Joshua Pollack, a scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, says the end of Minerva is about more than just shifting money into advanced technology; he says the Pentagon appears less interested than ever in hearing from outside academics.
JOSHUA POLLACK: It's not just a case of social sciences; it's scientific advice generally.
BRUMFIEL: Last year, the Pentagon tried to disband a group of researchers known as the Jasons. They had given the Defense Department independent, sometimes critical evaluations of tough technical problems for years. In the case of Minerva, the program is only around $15 million each year. That's sofa change for the Pentagon.
POLLACK: The idea that you would need to eliminate a small program because you need to buy some modest fraction of a new missile is shortsighted to me. I think it is, as the saying goes, penny-wise and pound-foolish.
BRUMFIEL: Pollack worries that by favoring new hardware over academic advice, the Pentagon risks stumbling blindly into a new arms race.
Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News, Washington.
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