DHS Awards Center of Excellence to University of Maryland

A nine month effort culminated with the January 10 announcement that the Homeland Security Center of Excellence for Behavioral and Social Research on Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism, funded with $12 million over the course of 3 years, had been awarded to the University of Maryland. Criminologist, Gary LaFree, APA Psychologists, Arie Kruglanski and Clark McCauley, and Sociologist Kathleen Tierney will jointly direct the Center.

A nine month effort culminated with the January 10 announcement that the Homeland Security Center of Excellence for Behavioral and Social Research on Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism, funded with $12 million over the course of 3 years, had been awarded to the University of Maryland. Criminologist, Gary LaFree, APA Psychologists, Arie Kruglanski and Clark McCauley, and Sociologist Kathleen Tierney will jointly direct the Center. From its inception, Science Policy staff had watched the university-based centers program with great interest and we were heartened to see that even the first center, awarded in November of 2003, focused on the basic social science issue of risk analysis. In fact, that center is Co-Directed by a mathematical psychologist, Dr. Detlof von Winterfeldt, of the University of Southern California’s School of Policy, Planning, and Development. Six months later, two more university centers dedicated to protecting the nations food supply were established to study issues related to pre and post harvest agro terrorism.

In the spring of 2004 as DHS began to consider developing a grant announcement (what DHS calls a Broad Agency Announcement or BAA) for a center devoted to social and behavioral issues, it invited input from APA and other organizations representing the relevant scientific disciplines. Although the original plan called for the creation of two Centers, one focused broadly on understanding "root causes" of terrorism and the other on responding to terrorist events, in the end the two were combined for budgetary reasons. For several months, from the BAA’s inception, APA's Science Policy staff worked to help mold the BAA via discussions with DHS Science and Technology staff, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, as well as many individual APA scientists and we are pleased to note that the BAA clearly reflected that input.

The BAA was released July 6 and Science Policy staff engaged in a vigorous dissemination campaign, not only to bring the best scientists into the fold, but also to continue to demonstrate to DHS the critical role social and behavioral sciences can play in addressing issues related to homeland and national security. Toward that end, we immediately distributed the announcement to all Graduate Psychology Programs and the Executive Committees of all APA Divisions. The notice invited colleges and universities to submit letters of intent by July 30, 2004 with full proposals due September 30, 2004, an unusually short turn around for academicians more accustomed to grant cycles at agencies like NIH or NSF. Still, DHS received 27 proposals leading to a request from DHS for APA to nominate candidate peer reviewers. Science Policy staff worked with the leadership of 14 APA Divisions to solicit experts from a wide range of psychology sub disciplines that we thought should inform the construction of a comprehensive review. While it was up to DHS staff to determine how to balance the expertise from the psychology community against other behavioral and social sciences, we were extremely grateful to the Division leadership for their collective willingness to help with these nominations on relatively short notice.

The University of Maryland consortium assembled an impressive interdisciplinary team of researchers but also recognized the value of allowing for a dynamic set of collaborations, acknowledging that many of the brightest socials scientists were likely among their competitors, responding to the same BAA. Importantly, the Center will also foster strong educational components integrating pre and post-doctoral fellows, interns and visiting scholars into programmatic research focused on understanding what they see as the three major developmental cycles of terrorist groups: formation, dynamics, and psychological and social impacts.

Dr. Susan Brandon, Assistant Director of Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences at OSTP, who was drawn in regularly to consult with DHS throughout the competition cycle said "the Center offers new opportunities for conducting important social & behavioral science research - something to be excited about in a time of real pressure on budgets across Federal science agencies”. And nothing could be truer as flat, if not declining science budgets, may be the norm for years to come.

Asked to comment on the potential of his center, Dr. Arie Kruglanski, Distinguished University Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland made the following observations. “Occasionally, large scale historical trends and political developments pose societal challenges of such magnitude that only concerted efforts by the scientific community at large are adequate to meet them. The growing threat to orderly societies from world wide terrorism constitutes such a challenge”, Dr. Kruglanski said. Further, he noted, “…the establishment of the Centers of Excellence by the DHS reflects our government’s recognition that mobilization of our best scientific efforts is essential if our struggle with this elusive and highly dangerous phenomenon is to succeed. The Center of Excellence for Behavioral and Social Aspects of Terrorism at the University of Maryland intends to harness the best social science resources available to gain a deeper understanding into the ways terrorist organizations form and function, and the impact they have on targeted societies. Coupled with the gravity of the terrorist threat, is an immense challenge these developments pose to social science research and the opportunity to advance our knowledge through unprecedented interdisciplinary collaboration. Our team will include a wide variety of social scientists including psychologists, social psychologists, sociologists, political scientists, geographers, and criminologists.”

Dr. Clark McCauley, Director of the Solomon Asch Center for Ethnopolitical Conflict and Co-Director of the new DHS Center expanded on the importance of interdisciplinarity citing historical precedent. “As with most real-world problems, understanding terrorism and response to terrorism requires collaboration across academic boundaries”, Dr. McCauley said. “An early model for this kind of collaboration was WWII’s Manhattan Project, which brought a diverse group of scientists and mathematicians to work together on the first atomic weapon. This Center aims for the same kind of interdisciplinary collaboration, but in a mission more directly related to reducing intergroup violence and the impact of such violence”.

Dr. Kruglanski noted that the center would not only cross disciplinary boundaries but national and methodological ones as well. “We are collaborating with major American and international universities and institutes with strengths in relevant domains of the social sciences. Our data bases will be correspondingly diverse to include large event-based data banks, economic, demographic and political data bases, surveys, focus groups and interviews, as well as gaming and simulation experiments”.

Coordinating such a diverse range of approaches will be a demanding task as Dr. McCauley is keenly aware. “Within the new Center, the challenge is to integrate complexity at multiple levels: terrorism and response to terrorism must be understood in terms of individuals, small groups, organizations, social movements, and-overarching all-in terms of political competition. Looking outward, the Center will be collaborating with three existing Centers of Excellence and perhaps three more Centers yet to be named. The new Center looks forward to working with other Centers on behavioral aspects of terrorism-related problems such as risk assessment and food safety”.

Reflecting on the work ahead, Dr. McCauley suggested that “the value of the University of MD Center for psychology should be a two-way street: existing theoretical perspectives will be made useful in understanding terrorism, and applied research on terrorism will uncover the limitations of current research and lead to better theory.” Dr. Kruglanski concluded optimistically, “the Maryland led team is honored and excited by the challenges of this important task, and we are gearing up to give our very best in the efforts ahead”.