Calling on Science & Technology to Counter Terrorism

by Geoff Mumford, PhD, Public Policy Office

Two weeks after the September 11 attacks, the Presidents of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine began to convene meetings of small groups of senior national experts to explore the new dimensions of terrorism. Within the next few weeks, the Academies initiated a rare internally funded activity, the Committee on Science and Technology for Countering Terrorism. The project was conceived as a fast-track response to develop a science/technology strategy for risk assessment and threat mitigation. Details of the Committee’s schedule and membership were publicly released on December 3, 2001 and are available on the NAS website.

The Committee will conduct its activities in two phases with the hope of completing Phase 1 in six months and Phase 2 by September 11, 2002. Phase one of the project includes the following three tasks: 1) prepare a carefully delineated framework for the application of science and technology for countering terrorism; 2) prepare research agendas in seven key areas; and 3) examine a series of cross-cutting issues. The plan is to characterize the range of threats to the nation’s security by targets, weapons, and delivery systems, and the possible points of intervention. Next, research agendas will be developed across the topical domains of seven separate panels: 1) Biological, 2) Chemical, 3) Nuclear and Radiological, 4) Information Technology, 5) Transportation, 6) Electric Facilities, Cities and Fixed Infrastructure and 7) Behavioral, Social and Institution issues.

For each key area, the research agenda will identify the highest-leveraged opportunities for research to contribute to counter-terrorism. Additionally, each panel is being asked to: 1) identify the areas in the typology of terrorism to which the technical domain relates; 2) evaluate the current state of knowledge and capacity for dealing with the most significant threats; and 3) identify significant barriers to the use of technology and knowledge that may be available but underutilized. Finally, multidisciplinary research topics that cut across the above domains and threats that arise from the interdependence of these areas will be considered in developing the final integrated science and technology program plan and research strategy for combating terrorism. The final report from Phase 1 is expected to be issued May 31, 2002.

Phase two will commence with the completion of the team studies in May. The work will be done by the committee and will focus on improving interagency capabilities and coordination, while promoting continuous input from the science and technology community into these activities. The second phase will focus on conducting reviews of key intergovernmental research programs and examining the kinds of institution building that are needed to carry out the overall agenda and to ensure top-quality, continuous input from the S&T community. The “customer” for the S&T Program Plan and Research Strategy would be the newly created office of Homeland Security, headed by Governor Tom Ridge; the Office of Science and Technology Policy, headed by the President’s Science Advisor John Marburger; and the Office of Management and Budget.

Population of the seven panels was occurring coincident with the December press release, and there was no formal nomination process in place. However, the NAS Committee on Human Factors rallied quickly to affirm its role across all seven panels. In a December 21 memo to the staff director for the academies counter-terrorism effort the Committee wrote:

“Many of the S & T responses to terrorism, as well as the systems to which they apply and which must be protected against threats (e.g., air transportation, energy infrastructure), involve human operators ‘in the loop.’ Whenever people interact with machines or organizations to fulfill a mission, this interaction is crucial to mission success. A systems approach must be taken to ensure that these interactions are achieved with a minimum of error. Taking a total systems approach to understanding vulnerabilities or deployment implications of S & T countermeasures will necessitate including the “human factor” in your deliberations. Human factors issues are critical to the effective deployment of countermeasures in all seven of the fast-track panels identified by your Committee. 

Human factors is the study of humans and their interaction with systems, products, and the environment. Human factors is both a science of human performance as well as an engineering discipline concerned with the design of systems for both efficiency and safety. The purpose of human factors design activities is to match systems, jobs, products, and environments to the physical and cognitive abilities and limitations of people. The Committee on Human Factors stands ready as your conduit to our nation’s expertise in such areas as human error, efficiency, safety, automation, biomechanics and anthropometry, signal detection and vigilance, perception, cognition, and decision making, performance under stress, personnel selection, training, and organizational behavior.”

The memo detailed a compelling role for human factors research across each of the panels’ domains and provided nominations for each.  APA reinforced the nominations by sending them directly to one of the “customers,” the Office of Science & Technology Policy. In addition, Kurt Salzinger, Executive Director for Science, delivered a separate list of nominees, covering a broader range of psychological and behavioral science expertise directly to the President’s Science Advisor, John Marburger, in a White House meeting on December 10.

Panel rosters had not been finalized as this issue goes to press, but will be available soon at the NAS website.

Other standing Boards and Committees in the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education are in the process of reviewing the scope of their activities, including the Board on Behavioral, Cognitive and Sensory Sciences, to determine what they can contribute to the development of a counter-terrorism research agenda.

Public Policy Office staff will be working closely with the lead staff of all the panels over the coming months to ensure that they receive up to date information on behavioral and psychological research relevant to their domains.