Monday, August 12, 2013

Resources and Rebels

     In the past I have mostly penned posts about “stereotypical science.” Massive sets of data processed by even more massive computer programs that result in tangible results that look like what science is “supposed” to look like; big words that describe impossibly small things that you know you don’t really understand but of course you don’t want to admit it, because pretending to understand makes people think you actually do.

     And, of course, this need to masquerade as Einstein after reading big words that could serve as a Big Bang Theory script can only mean one thing: that what you read was, without a doubt, science!
This time, I will be introducing studies in a softer realm of science, one that isn’t full of test tubes and laboratories and colored smoke. This time, I will be talking about Political Science.

     (I’ll casually ignore the fact that if I replaced the word “science” in the paragraphs above with the word “politics,” it would not lose very much meaning at all).
     A team of professors from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte have received a grant from the Department of Defense for a proposal titled, “Natural Resources and Armed Conflict,” which translates into our alliterative title, “Rebels and Resources.”

     Dr. James Walsh, the principal investigator and also professor of Political Science at UNC Charlotte, seemed excited about the project when describing its potential to me. Working in conjunction with Pennsylvania State University, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University at Albany, this team will comb existing data and research to establish a comprehensive and interactive database combining armed conflict and natural resources.

     Starting in Africa and proceeding methodically from country to country, they are painstakingly sifting through available data and cataloguing what they find.

     For example, diamonds are a natural resource sometimes used to fund groups in unstable areas. For these areas, if available, all information on numbers of diamonds, locations of diamonds, transportation of diamonds, and money transfer related to the diamonds, will all be catalogued. In addition, all information available on groups in the same region, in addition to their activities, will be catalogued.

     After talking to Dr. Walsh and student researchers assigned to the project through UNC Charlotte’s Graduate School’s Summer Research Scholars program, I understood the daunting task.

     Political Science is defined by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as, “a social science concerned chiefly with the description and analysis of political and especially governmental institutions and processes.” 

     This means that political scientists recognize and analyze problems and situations stemming from facets of human civilization- natural resources, education, cultural studies, global health; the issues are endless- and they subsequently draw connections between these issues. Some political scientists seek to propose solutions to these problems after the connections have been made. Other political scientists seek to understand these problems in more depth, in order to give the former a greater insight to what solutions might be proposed.

     Dr. Walsh’s team is doing just that. Connections will drawn between the information they gather, and those will be made available to the public, from which more connections can be made. The proposal by Dr. Walsh and his team ask five primary questions, which the database will try to answer:

1.       Do “lootable” resources increase the likelihood of ethnic rebellion?

2.      How do resources influence the type of violence employed by non-state actors?

3.      Do natural resources fuel third-party interventions in civil wars?

4.      How do natural resources influence state failure and political violence?

5.      How do looting strategies and rebel violence aid fragmentation?

      To someone who is not a political scientist, those questions may not make a lot of sense. What must be understood, however, is that “natural resource” can be loosely associated with “control.”  Everything is a question of control. Do those that have control of the resources have control of the trajectory of the state? Do those that want control of the state need control of the resources? If third-party and non-state actors (other countries, outside organizations, other groups that are not directly associated with the country/conflict in question) want control of those resources or that area, will they intervene in order to acquire some measure of that control?

      Dr. Walsh and his team must catalogue data that can help others to answer these questions. Making available all existing data into an easy-to-use digital platform, it is hoped that understanding, analyzing, and predicting the outcomes of armed conflict in conjunction with natural resources will be made easier- and therefore, perhaps a little more prolific.

      If this process is made easier for those political scientists that search for a deeper understanding, it will be also easier for those political scientists that search for solutions to the problems.

     There are many categories of science: the kind that is confined to “stereotypical science”- for example, this blog post about nano-particles. There is science that begins that way, as in this blog post about energy optimization, but has broader implications in real-world application on a social scale. And there is science that never sees any goggles or lab coats, that isn’t the cause of any rogue smoke alarms or chemical spills or scrutinized under the purple glow of a UV light. Rather, it starts and ends as a study of society, drawing patterns between different aspects of human nature and how that nature has shaped and will shape history. 

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