Today's Washington Post reports contrasting reactions to a Department of Defense plan to give $50 million in grants to social scientists to study such issues as China's military and political violence in the Islamic world. [Maria Glod, Military's Social Science Grants Raise Alarm," Washington Post, 3 August 2008]
Some anthropologists quoted in the story seem to reject any military sponsorship as unethical. David Price, whose book on anthropologists during World War II is on my reading list but not yet in my library, objects that the program "sets up sort of a Soviet system, or top-down system. If you look at the big picture, this will not make us smarter -- this will make us much more narrow. It will only look at problems Defense wants us to in a narrow way." By contrast, Rob Townsend of the American Historical Association notes that "hopefully, a project like Minerva will provide some historical perspective before, rather than after, it is needed."
The Post correctly explains that this debate is a replay of controversies in the 1960s, when the Pentagon and CIA sponsored studies of Latin America and Southeast Asia, including the infamous "Project Camelot." Throughout the 1960s and 70s, scholars struggled to find ways to lend their skills and insight to sound public policy without sacrificing their intellectual independence and integrity. Obviously, this is not an easy thing to do, and questions of sponsorship remain among the most difficult ethical problems faced by social scientists.
For a blog about IRBs, the salient point is the irrelevance of the Belmont Report to such questions. The authors of that report were steeped in the history of medical experimentation, and the report reflects their concerns about past abuses of poor ward patients, Nazi concentration camp prisoners, and the rural black men enrolled in the Tuskegee syphilis study. They knew nothing of Project Camelot, anthropology's "Thai affair," or less spectacular concerns about corporate sponsorship. As a result, the Belmont Report, while getting rather specific about such medical concerns as selection of subjects, says nothing about the conflicting duties to sponsors, subjects, and the truth. When applied to social science, the report gives the wrong answers to some questions, and no answers to others. And if anyone were to attempt to write a Belmont-style report on the ethics of social science, they would find various scholarly disciplines clashing over programs like this one.