IEDS Wins prestigious Minerva grant

Story by Jon Reidel

Rebecca Pincus, a doctoral student in natural resources,has been awarded a $167,000 grant under the Minerva program launched by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense to study how well it has adapted to the emergence of significant energy-related security threats.

The proposal “Strategic Response to Energy-Related Security Threats” was one of 10, culled from more than 300 submissions, selected by the Minerva Initiative in the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense, a university-based social science research initiative focusing on areas of strategic importance to U.S. national security policy.

“It’s a little intimidating to be essentially working for the Department of Defense and having the Pentagon paying me to study it,” says Pincus. “I have some scheduled presentations next year to the DoD on how it responded as an organization to these new factors and what kind of job it has been doing. It’s sensitive, but I think it could hopefully have some real impact.”

The objective of the proposal is to “determine when, how, and why the DoD evolved new strategic priorities addressing energy and climate change.” Pincus plans to achieve these outcomes by conducting quantitative budgetary analysis of the DoD, the Office of Management and Budget, and the White House. Qualitative data will be drawn from interviews with key DoD personnel and foundational national security documents, as well as supporting reports and directives. The research is designed to assess the effectiveness of DoD as an organization in responding to new, unconventional threats.

“In recent years, several branches of the government have taken steps toward developing alternatives to carbon fuels and building ‘green fleets,’” says Pincus, whose adviser is Saleem Ali, professor of environmental studies and principal investigator on the grant. “They have moved to replace petroleum and reduce their energy footprint. This move has really significant consequences for the environment and climate change and has come about largely as a result of strategy and the realization that fuel convoys are getting targeted in Iraq and Afghanistan and that when soldiers are carrying around 100 pounds of batteries, it slows them down. Strategically they want to make their troops lighter, faster, more efficient and more cost effective.”

The grant, which will be based in the Institute for Environmental Diplomacy and Security at the Jeffords Center, was awarded based on merit review by panels comprising government scientists, defense policy experts and academics in the pertinent fields. The nine institutions selected along with UVM were Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Duke, Pennsylvania State, University of Florida, University of Maryland, University of Michigan and two by the University of California-San Diego.

“It is important for environmental researchers to engage directly with the Department of Defense since our armed forces have an extremely high ecological footprint worldwide,” says Ali. “The Minerva grant and Becca's dissertation research will allow for such constructive engagement and mutual learning and we are excited to be recognized in this regard.”

Pincus, who has a master of science in environmental law from the Vermont Law School, and a master of science in natural resources from UVM, says the U.S. spent about $13 billion on oil in 2011 in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, with the cost of transporting one gallon of gas to the front lines running between $400-500. “In this budget environment, that’s a lot of money,” she says. “The Pentagon has had very generous budgets for a long time, but we’re in a situation now where they really have to look at every penny we are spending. So they are moving away from carbon and toward efficiency for really practical, non-partisan reasons.”

Pincus, who received her bachelor of science from the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in 2005, also plans to look at why the military is shifting its energy policies now instead of decades ago.

“Circumstances are similar today to what was going on in Vietnam, and yet the military didn’t pivot away from carbon fuels, or maybe it tried to and failed,” she says. “I would imagine if you took a soldier 20 or 30 years ago and said you were going to put a solar panel on their tent you might have gotten a different reaction from the one you are getting today. I’d like to know how that culture change has come about by looking at the organizational culture of the Department of Defense and how it has mediated this strategic shift away from carbon fuels.”