Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Future or Past of Military-Financed Research

In Canada, the Security and Defence Forum [SDF] has been supporting scholarly research of the Canadian miltiary and other security and defense issues.  To be clear, it does not support the development of new weapons technology (other agencies do that).  The money has gone to a dozen or more research centres throughout Canada based at universities from coast to coast.  Money also goes directly to fund research and conferences through special projects grants (see below) and graduate students. 

The general idea is that Canadian public policy is better off if there is a community of scholars who study defence issues.  For instance, before World War II, few democracies had much academic depth in the study of security issues.  After the war, there developed in the US and elsewhere more and more scholarship to understand the causes and consequences of war, alliances, military doctrine, procurement, and a host of other security issues. 

Why blog about this now?  Because SDF is about to get axed, apparently.  It would save the Canadian military $2.5 million.  Which, even in Canada, is chump change in terms of defense budget savings.  SDF has faced this threat before, seen by some as funding cheerleaders in academic world, that having the military fund research is ethically problematic, that there are other agencies to fund social science (the Social Science Humanities Research Council [SSHRC] to name the major one), and so forth. 

Let me reveal what SDF has done for me to be clear about my biases:

  1. I have been the recipient of three SDF special projects grants.  The first helped to fund a conference that led to an edited volume on the challenges posted by civil wars and ethnic conflicts.  The second and third have funded parts of my current book project: trips to Australia and New Zealand last winter and the Netherlands next winter.  This research is aimed to understand not only how Canada's allies behave and why, but also, via comparison, to understand Canada's civil-military relations.  The project is an analytical one, not a puff piece, so it will probably please some military officers and offend others.
  2. SDF folks arranged many of my first contacts with the Canadian military so that I could interview the commanders of Afghan operations for my book.  This was tremendously useful for me to get started in this project.  Not all of my Canadian military contacts are through SDF, but many of them were.  This project would have been much more difficult without SDF.
  3. SDF, in conjunction NATO and other parts of the Canadian Forces, facilitated my trip to Afghanistan in December 2007.  This was an incredibly useful experience for my teaching and my research to talk to folks who were in the midst of operations and engagement with Afghans.  It has shaped much of my thinking, including my regular posts on metrics.  It was clear that this was part of an effort to sell the mission back home, but it seemed like a suboptimal strategy for doing so since academics are very often critics.  The group with me raised heaps of critical questions and did not seem likely to come singing from the CF songbook.  I am probably an outlier as I have been more pro-war (as some have put it--not an accurate term but one that sticks) than most of the others.  But not so much because I feel I owe the CF or because I drank their koolaid, but because I have struggled to consider alternatives to the current mission and have found no attractive ones (as I have reported in this blog).
  4. I used to belong to one of the 12 or 13 SDF-funded research centers.  When the Research Group on International Security, tying McGill to the U of Montreal together, become a research center, I dropped out.  Its new focus on collaborative conference type stuff did not mesh with the incentives I faced to produce less collaborative research.  Prior to that, I did benefit from yearly research funds.  And my graduate students have benefited mostly from support for conference attendance as well as conferences in Montreal funded in part by SDF.  The funds also support an IR speaker series each fall.
So, I definitely have benefited from SDF and had hoped to benefit from it in the future, but that seems less likely.   Thus, I am biased.  I also do not have a good perspective on whether the other 12 research centers are giving SDF and the Canadian Public output worth the input.  I am familiar with the activities of some of the centers but not all of them.   

I do think, again in my biased fashion, that I am giving Canada its money's worth.  As the result of the Afghan trip, my interactions with the Canadian military officers, and my travels to foreign capitals, I have not only produced research that should shed light on some important issues (like why NATO has such problems fighting a war, why the burden-sharing problem of the Aughts makes the 1980's version pale in comparison, how and why countries manage/mis-manage their militaries in distant multilateral efforts, whether too much state capacity might just be more problematic than too little, etc), but I have used what I have learned in my classes.  Not just in my big intro class of 600 students each fall (holy outreach, Batman!), but also in my upper division and graduate courses on Civil-Military Relations and the International Relations of Ethnic Conflict.  Also, I have several PhD and MA students working on issues related to civil war and intervention. 

Plus I have done heaps of media over the past few years, not so much cheerleading (although one could read my op-eds that way) but explaining some pretty complex problems.  Indeed, one of the things I have been trying to convey to Canadian policy types is that it is understandable that the Canadian public might be confused about Afghanistan because the place is confusing.  And the NATO effort is confusing.   The media needs (or at least wants) experts to give some perspective on security and defense issues.  They can rely on just the retired military types who are tied to defense contractors, or they can also make use of irascible academics who might just be a bit more critical.   

The big question for SDF defenders and critics is whether this kind of research would happen in its absence?  It is true we can get the money from elsewhere, as most of my current book project was funded by the aforementioned SSHRC.*  SDF has been handy in filling in the holes, though.  The other aspects--helping academics navigate the complex bureaucracy to meet military folks, sending scholars on trips to Canadians deployed abroad--that will be missed bigtime.  At a time where universities are finding it harder to support research and support graduate students, this kind of cut will be felt more deeply.  True, there will be less stuff done by the research centers that are aimed to satisfy annual reports and there will be less admin covered by the national government. 

But is this really the right time to reduce the incentives and support for understanding the Canadian military and broader security challenges?  Sure, if Canada retreats from the world and only focuses on arctic sovereignty, as we do not really need to understand what a misguided policy this is going to be nor would we need to understand the domestic politics that will generate this wasted effort.

*  I must say I am really annoyed by the one scholar cited in the article on the cuts, who argues that scholars should only be funded by SSHRC essentially rather than "sinecures through DND."  Funny to hear from a CRC Chair, since we CRCs gets money each year that is not alloted by a normal SSHRC open competition either.  

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