Innovative research brings intelligence leader to ASU


October 28, 2013

A broad range of innovative interdisciplinary research brought Peter Highnam, director of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), to Arizona State University recently.

In addition to meeting with ASU President Michael Crow and Sethuraman "Panch" Panchanathan, senior vice president of Knowledge Enterprise Development, Highnam visited several labs and centers on the Tempe campus, observing how ASU researchers have taken a different approach to addressing societal challenges. IARPA Director Peter Highnam visits ASU Download Full Image

“ASU researchers are conducting cutting-edge, multi-disciplinary research projects that span a variety of areas that IARPA is looking to address,” said Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan. “Having Dr. Highnam visit ASU to see firsthand the incredible work of our faculty and students speaks volumes about the university’s capabilities and extensive range of challenges we are looking to tackle that align with IARPA’s mission.”

Highnam joined IARPA in February 2009 and has served as director since August 2012. He was previously a senior advisor in the National Institutes of Health and a program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), where he managed programs in electronic warfare and airborne communications. Highnam has been recognized with both a Department of Defense Civilian Exceptional Service Award and a Distinguished Service Award from the Department of Health and Human Services. He is a co-inventor on three patents in commercial seismic exploration and graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a doctorate in computer science.

With more than a decade of experience working in applied research in industry, Highnam recognizes the value of use-inspired research, which is a top priority for ASU.

During his visit, Highnam gave an overview to a group of faculty, administrators and staff of IARPA’s mission to invest in high-risk, high-payoff research, how they’re always looking for good ideas and program managers, and how to engage in IARPA-funded research. He also caught a glimpse of some of the depth and breadth of ASU’s most cutting-edge interdisciplinary projects.

“The nature of what we do includes looking ahead with little regard of discipline, but focusing on what it takes to get where we want to go,” said Highnam during his remarks to ASU faculty, administrators and staff.

Highnam met with a number of researchers and administrators during his visit from a broad range of disciplines. These included experts in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, College of Public Programs, Global Institute of Sustainability, LightWorks Initiative and a number of center and consortium directors.

During these series of meetings, multiple topics were discussed that cover a wide span of issues relevant to IARPA’s mission, including our dual commitment to using imaginative thinking and incorporating expertise from diverse and multi-disciplinary areas to solve complex problems.

In discussing the need for focusing on imaginative and measurable outcomes to future-focused solutions, Highnam explained that “there are people who are really good at writing textbooks that focus on the past, but what we want (at IARPA) are people who invent pieces for the future.”  

This view clearly resonates with ASU’s mission to conduct use-inspired and transdisciplinary research through innovative and entrepreneurial thinking, and the importance of collaboration with organizations such as IARPA to help solve society’s grandest challenges.

During his visit, Highnam identified a few connection points between ASU researchers and IARPA program managers, and highlighted the process for engaging with IARPA. Based on Highnam's recommendations, ASU plans to follow up on a wide range of topic areas from immunosignaturing and biological sensing and signal processing to analysis of science fiction and its implications on emerging technology.

New book questions conventional wisdom on religion, secularism, gender


October 28, 2013

When Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager shot in the head by the Taliban for advocating girls’ education, lost out on the Nobel Peace Prize this year, a Taliban spokesman said, “We are delighted that she didn’t get it ... This award should be given to the real Muslims who are struggling for Islam. Malala is against Islam, she is secular.”

The implication seems clear: If you support women’s rights, you must be secular. Cover of new book "Religion, the Secular, and the Politics of Sexual Difference" Download Full Image

One does not have to belong to the Taliban to share this point of view; it is conventional wisdom that women’s rights and secularism go hand-in-hand, while religion reinforces traditional gender roles.

According to a new book of essays edited by two Arizona State University faculty members, the reality is not quite so black and white. Secularism does not always advance women’s rights, while religion does not always suppress them.

In the book, “Religion, the Secular, and the Politics of Sexual Difference,” scholars from some of the world’s most prestigious universities discuss why many prevailing assumptions about religion, secularism and gender rights need to be re-examined and, in some cases, revised.

“Religion conjures up superstition, authoritarianism and otherworldly escapism, while secularism lays claim to reason, freedom and the betterment of this world,” says Linell Cady, director of the ASU’s Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict who, along with ASU religious studies professor Tracy Fessenden, co-edited the book. “Assumptions such as these are entrenched in modern scholarship and widely impact individuals, governments and civil societies.”

In the book’s opening essay, Joan Scott, a scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, points out some of the fallacies in these assumptions. She argues that secularization is not inherently liberating for women, while the beginnings of feminism are tied to religious motivations.

Scott reminds readers that the founders of our modern secular nation-states did not consider women as political equals and excluded them from politics. American women did not win the right to vote until 1920, and French women until 1944.

Conversely, today’s feminists often forget that Christian women were the first to venture into the public sphere and gain political clout, during the 18th- and 19th-century temperance and abolitionist movements.

The first wave of feminism drew on deeply held religious principles for its arguments,” Scott writes.Indeed, it was white Protestant women who staffed the temperance, abolition, peace and purity movements, gaining a space in public life as voices of Christian morality.

Margot Badran, a senior fellow at Georgetown University, writes about Muslim women in late 19th- and early 20th-century Egypt. During this period, Egypt saw the simultaneous rise of a secular state and society and the reconfiguration of religion within the private domain.

While the secularist movement did improve women’s chances for education and paid work, it also reinforced gender inequality within the private sphere of the nuclear family. The state allowed conservative religious forces to enact a powerful and tenacious system of patriarchal control.

“Under the new codified law, built on a patriarchal construction of the family, upholding male privileges and power, women fared less well,” Badran writes.

Michigan State University professor Gene Burns, another contributor to the volume, argues that secular liberalism, paradoxically, can hinder gender equality by allowing citizens the freedom to spend their time and energy in quite illiberal spaces, from family life to the workplace to the religious sphere. Burns’ focus is on the Catholic Church. 

“The Catholic hierarchy currently stakes a great deal of its authority on opposition to secular liberal morality, especially in matters of sexual morality,” argues Burns. “To the extent that the [secular] state takes a laissez-faire approach to any part of society ... then dominant groups and dominant cultural assumptions will have considerable power to shape social reality.”

The concept for the book grew out of several projects undertaken by the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, including a $775,000 grant from the Ford Foundation that examined the nature and varieties of secularism. The culmination of that project was a conference on the role of gender in conflicts over religion and secularism. The book includes a number of essays based on presentations from that conference.

In addition to the book, the center also recently issued a report on religion, gender and human rights in international affairs.

“The role of gender in conflicts at the intersections of religion, secularism and human rights is a critical, yet seriously under-examined area,” says Cady. “Our work has explored these conflicts in an effort to move past the simplistic oppositions that actually hinder women’s continued advancement.”

The Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict is a research unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences that examines the role of religion as a driving force in human affairs. Cady and Fessenden are both professors in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Written by Barby Grant