Behavioral Science in the Department of Homeland Security

On May 12, in our monthly meeting with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), several representatives from the behavioral and social science community met with Parney Albright, former OSTP Assistant Director for Homeland & National Security.

On May 12, in our monthly meeting with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), several representatives from the behavioral and social science community met with Parney Albright, former OSTP Assistant Director for Homeland & National Security. Parney has formally transitioned to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to work on "policy, plans, programs and budget" in the Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate for the new Undersecretary, Charles McQueary.

The organizational chart for the S&T Directorate is evolving rapidly. One Assistant Secretary will oversee the planning, policy, program and budget activities and 3 other Assistant Secretaries will oversee the execution of S&T Directorate activities within an Office of Research and Development; an Office of Homeland Security Advanced Research Programs; and an Office of Systems Development and Engineering. When fully staffed the S&T Directorate will have approximately 180 staff with 75 of those involved in various elements of planning and program activities. Program will be split across several portfolios incorporating the behavioral elements described below as well as programs to deal with a range of potential threats including radiological/nuclear, biochemical and high explosives. The remaining programs will support the other Directorates: Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection; Borders and Transportation; and Emergency Preparedness and Emergency Response.

Parney described some of the current S&T programmatic interests related to "determination of intent" (i.e., taking a more scientific approach to understanding what it is that triggers the attention of security personnel when they decide to question suspicious persons); understanding root causes of terrorism and methods to quantify the deterrent effect of countermeasures; understanding how and why people react the way they do to warnings and alarms and what can be done to train people to respond appropriately; understanding how terrorist networks operate and what mechanisms can be used to disrupt them; understanding how to apply "data-mining" techniques to low frequency terrorist events; understanding public perceptions of personal identity and privacy; and understanding effective "red teaming" (i.e., how to think like the bad guys to successfully model different terrorist scenarios).

Other than "determination of intent", its not clear which of the program areas are meant to receive dedicated funding but research on determination of intent will be funded at $15 million in this fiscal year and at about $25 million next year. Although Parney is a physicist by training, he went out of his way to assure us that in the S&T Directorate they understand that elements of behavioral and social science suffuse a great deal of what DHS does. Howard Silver, Executive Director of COSSA reminded Parney of a letter drafted by several behavioral and social science groups and sent to Secretary Ridge in April, advocating for an infrastructure within the S&T Directorate much like the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) at NIH. Although Parney said he wasn't ready to take that approach for a variety of reasons, he was interested in nominations for a 20-member scientific advisory board for the S&T Directorate.

In a meeting the previous week, Gary Strong, Director of Behavioral Research within the S&T Directorate at DHS asked Geoff Mumford, Director of Science Policy, to serve on an informal advisory group with Susan Brandon; Program Chief, Affect & Biobehavioral Regulation, DNBBS, NIMH; Norman Bradburn; Assistant Director SBE, National Science Foundation; Phil Rubin; Division Director Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences, NSF; and Ken Whang; Program Manager for Collaborative Research on Computational Neurosciences, NSF.