Monday, March 31, 2014

Social Science Funding for National Defense

In November 2008, Staff Sgt Paula Loyd gave her life defending the nation in Afghanistan, using the skills the nation needed most, the skills for which the military sought her out: the skills of a social scientist. We don't tend to think of social science as being critical to national security, and mocking social sciences and 'area studies' has become a pastime for Republican lawmakers, who just last week advanced legislation to gut the social science section of the National Science Foundation. Yet for better and for worse, more than Congress or even social science professors themselves may realize, the Cold War built the social sciences into the very foundations of US power. Defunding them is not just a problem for ivory tower academics, but a direct shot at our nation's security - and even those of us with ambiguous feelings about that truth ought to use it in the political struggle for defending (indeed, increasing) social science funding.

Sociology, anthropology, and other social sciences might not have an 'atom bomb' in their pocket like nuclear physicists, but there is no secret (at least to historians) that the social sciences have deep ties to the intelligence community. At the birth of the US intelligence community, Ivy League professors dominated the brand-new Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA. The OSS was actually one of the first major centers of interdisciplinary 'area studies,' bringing in dozens of historians and social scientists dubbed the "chairborne division."

Office of Strategic Services (OSS) recruits. Photo from National Park Service

Later, sociologists and anthropologists traveling the world for field research were enlisted to report to the intelligence community about local conditions and politics, and CIA funding through front organizations founded area studies and language departments throughout American universities. Some of this collaboration has been fairly heinous, such as when CIA psychologists in the 1950s and 60s tested hallucinogenic drugs on unsuspecting patients in hope of countering communist 'mind control,' resulting in at least one suicide, while other work has had more positive outcomes, like psychologists' ongoing work to treat PTSD and reduce soldier suicide rates.

Sociologists and economists created policy for aiding developing nations' economies as a diplomatic weapon of the Cold War (albeit with sometimes very unfortunate consequences). Anthropologists, media studies scholars, and others joined in the military-funded 'Project Camelot' in the 1960s to study psychological warfare, propaganda, and counter-insurgency, a project reflected in the Minerva Research Institute created in 2008 by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to develop area studies knowledge for defense purposes.

Even policymakers who sleep through history lessons should know the value of social scientists to national security, as it has only been a few years since social scientists embedded into ground forces in Afghanistan helped the Army calm tension, translate culture and language, and build allies in local villages. The so-called Human Terrain Teams , of which Staff Sgt. Loyd was a member (and only one of several casualties), were there to solve a basic problem of nation-building via military occupation: as the chief of the HTT program commented in 2007, "We're great at killing people and breaking things. But...this is a competition for the support of the population. So we've got to understand how the society is hardwired."


Of course, not all social science is going to have direct applications to industry or military aims, but then neither does a great deal of natural science research. In defending the expense of a high-energy physics laboratory, physicist Robert Wilson once argued that "it has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending." Wilson could have added that despite the vast majority of postwar science funding coming from the DOD or Atomic Energy Commission budgets, these agencies often funded 'pure science' on the premise that building up scientific manpower would prevent shortages of experts when the nation needed them. Both of these justifications apply to the social sciences in spades.

I deeply disagree with judging science by direct impact statements and making studies' titles immune to Congressional cherry-picking, and focusing on military applications fundamentally misses most of what makes science of any kind worth funding. Yet even if we choose to play that game, the social sciences have been every bit as active (or compromised, depending on your viewpoint) as the natural sciences in pursuing military research and advancing American power. If we want a better defended nation – a nation that understands and can find diplomatic peace with Russia, for example – we cannot afford to think of the social sciences as a luxury. We need social scientists like Staff Sgt. Loyd, even if the grisly price we pay to support them is funding other excellent research chosen by the top scientists in these fields.

Suggested reading (in no particular order):
  • Christopher Simpson, Universities and Empire: Money and Politics in the Social Sciences During the Cold War. New York: New Press, 1998.
    • Allan Needell, "Project Troy and the Cold War annexation of the social sciences." In Universities and Empire: Money and Politics in the Social Sciences during the Cold War. Edited by Christopher Simpson. New York, NY: New Press, 1998, pp. 3-38.
  • Tim Mueller, Rockefeller Foundation, Social Sciences, and the Humanities in the Cold War
  • Michael E. Latham, Modernization as Ideology: American Social Science and "Nation Building" in the Kennedy Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
  • Stuart Leslie, The Cold War and American Science: The Military-Industrial-Academic Complex at MIT and Stanford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993). 
  • Rebecca Lowen, Creating the Cold War University: The Transformation of Stanford (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).
  • Roger Geiger, "Science, Universities, and National Defense, 1945-1970" Osiris 7 (1992) p.26-48
  • Roger L. Geiger, "Milking the Sacred Cow: Research and the Quest for Useful Knowledge in the American University Since 1920," Science, Technology, & Human Values, Vol. 13, No. 3/4 (Summer - Autumn, 1988), pp. 332-348
  • Roger Geiger, "American Foundations and Academic Social Science, 1945-1960," Minerva 26/3, 1989.
  • Naomi Oreskes, "Laissez-tomber: Military patronage and women’s work in mid-20th-century oceanography." Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences 30 (2000): 373-392.
  • Mark Solovey, "Project Camelot and the 1960s Epistemological Revolution: Rethinking the Politics-Patronage-Social Science Nexus," Social Studies of Science 31 (April 2001): 171-206
  • Parsons, Talcott, "Social Science: A Basic National Resource", in Klausner, Samuel Z. and Lidz, Victor, M. (eds), The Nationalization of the Social Sciences (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986)
    • Also from this book: Klausner, Samuel Z., "The Bid to Nationalize the Social Sciences"

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Podcast Interview on HistoriCal Outreach

For anyone interested in my research, I just had a great time talking about my work at a broad level on the HistoriCal Outeach podcast. My interview is available here:

Or on iTunes at

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Op-ed: The Tie between Cyber-espionage and Immigration Reform

The following is an op-ed I wrote a while back that never found a home. Rather than let it go to waste, I thought I'd put it here.

Last week, the White House released a new framework for cybersecurity, aiming to keep American businesses from losing intellectual property to industrial spies and hackers. This has been a theme within this administration, as just months ago, former head of the NSA and US Cyber Command General Keith Alexander, dubbed cybercrime against American businesses the "greatest transfer of wealth in history." Yet if we learned from America's own past efforts at spying on industrial technology, we might focus our energies in protecting America's edge in science and technology on a very different political issue: immigration reform.

Another attempt at the "greatest attempt at technology transfer in history" took place just after World War II, when the United States, United Kingdom, France, and the Soviet Union sent teams of investigators to scour occupied Germany for trade secrets, scientific advances, patents, and documents of all kinds. These teams of scientists and engineers from every industry copied blueprints, interviewed technicians, microfilmed patent applications, and seized prototypes – all the kinds of written information a Chinese or Russian hacker might hope to get from a company's file server today. With the full power of the military government behind them, full access to all kinds of records, and several years to operate, surely there could be no circumstances better suited to stealing technologies. Despite all that, the actual gains from these investigations were far less than the planners in Washington, London, Paris and Moscow hoped and anticipated, and far less than Germans at the time feared.

The trick is that technology doesn't live just in documents, data, and blueprints, and it can rarely be transferred from one context to another using just those tools. Technologies live in societies, and in the people in those societies – those people with what's often called 'know-how' or 'tacit knowledge.' One British policymaker remarked on the key lessons learned from years of efforts in Germany: "In amount of 'given' information can ever be a substitute for the information obtained in the hard school of practical experience." One of the problems faced by US agents hunting for secrets was "these engineers come out of Germany full of things they want to report but have a great deal of difficulty expressing it in words. We may have to send a skilled copy man from an advertising agency to London in order to turn their reports into clear, explicit English." Whether that day's Don Draper could do the job or not, the problem was that some knowledge – even about technical things like chemical processes, building efficient machine tools, and medical techniques to save lives – is just very difficult to put into words.

If America is serious about maintaining its technological edge – and considering that high technology products and intellectual property are some of our top exports, we certainly ought to be – then keeping talented people in America, and recruiting talent from abroad, is every bit as important to national interest as keeping foreign hackers out. The lowest hanging fruit there is raising the cap in H1B visas, which go to foreign workers who American businesses want when they cannot find anyone at home to do the job, but this is just one part of immigration reform that is urgently needed. America is home to many of the world's best universities, attracting thousands of the very brightest minds from around the world, many of whom want to stay and build businesses and innovate right here – right up until we kick them out, at which point they leave to found competition and create jobs elsewhere in an ever-more-global economy. Meanwhile, government budget cuts via sequestration are putting such a squeeze on US science that many of our citizen scientists, too, are looking overseas for opportunities.

Indeed, the postwar investigators succeeded most famously when people were the targets rather than documents: for example, the famous case of the German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, one of the leading minds behind NASA's early successes. Keeping innovators in America and protecting our computers from foreign invasion are not mutually exclusive goals, of course. But if America wants to invent and innovate its way to a stronger economy, the greatest defense against technologies and jobs flowing overseas isn't in the NSA or the DOD. It's in our universities and (God help us all) in Congress' ability to craft long-term immigration policies that help keep technological 'know-how' at the service of American business.