Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Humpty-Dumpty Complex

It’s time to usher in the eggheads.

This is what Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has announced with a proactive plan to recruit social scientists, and a brain trust of economists and scholars, to help combat our security threats. The Pentagon has regularly financed Research and Development for science and engineering. Now it’s the social sciences and humanities (those two concepts that make all engineering students cringe) turn.

Cooperation between universities and the Pentagon has a long history of contention, because of the instinctive unease among scholars cooperating with the government. This conceivably, could be due to the nature of protecting independence and quality.

According to Mr. Gates, “The key principle of all components,” of this undertaking, “will be complete openness and rigid adherence to academic freedom and integrity. We are interested in furthering our knowledge of these issues and in soliciting diverse points of view, regardless of whether those views are critical of the department’s efforts.” Let’s hope this is true. What we don’t need, is another think tank.

A think tank is an organization, institute or corporation that engages in advocacy in areas such as social science. They mostly tend to concentrate on the affairs of political strategy, economy, technology and industrial or business policies. Don’t forget- also military issues. Unfortunately they have become little more than public relations fronts. They are experts at spinning webs of self-serving scholarship which serve the needs of the advocacy goals of their sponsors.

I like the idea of our leaders surrounding themselves with smart people, as long as they are impartial and listened to. Of course if you surround yourself with people saying what you want to hear, then it serves a nefarious function. The term kitchen cabinet, the popular name for a group of intimate, unofficial advisors, originated during the term of President Andrew Jackson. There can be good and bad kitchen cabinets, depending on your political views. Ronald Reagan had a kitchen cabinet of allies and friends from California who advised him during his terms. Clark Clifford was considered a member of the kitchen cabinet for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, before becoming Secretary of Defense. Robert Kennedy was considered part of his brother’s kitchen cabinet while also being a member of the Cabinet as Attorney General.

Now even a better idea is what is referred to as a brain trust. This is a group of experts who serve, usually unofficially, as advisors and policy planners, or a group of experts gathered to discuss issues informally in public. Franklin Roosevelt had such a group of advisors. They presented Roosevelt with analysis of national social and economic problems and helped him devise public-policy solutions.

Barak Obama seems to be taking a cue from Roosevelt’s play book. He is already starting to surround himself with smart people. This includes a Swahili-speaking Air Force general, a 30-year-old speechwriter who helped draft the final report from the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, and President Clinton’s first national security advisor. Whether they will turn out to be a kitchen cabinet or a brain trust is only speculation at this time. I’m hoping for the later.

So now, let’s get back to Secretary Gates’ plan. Here are a few things that these scholars might be able to help with-

1. Specific expert advisory groups, committees and roundtables.
2. Critiquing and providing intellectual rigor to department responses to various discussion papers, position papers and reviews.
3. Advice on research and policy issues currently affecting the department.
4. Assistance and advice on the rigor of planned research and evaluation.
5. Assistance with the scope and design of research projects planned to assess the impact of various programs and policies within the department’s reform agenda.
6. Provision of advice on the use of current data base holdings for secondary analysis and conduct of analysis using existing data where appropriate.

Remember, Humpty-Dumpty was the biggest egghead of them all, and we know what happened to him. So best of luck, Mr. Secretary.

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