Feature

Behavioral and social scientists have a wealth of knowledge to share with legislators and policy analysts working on homeland defense issues. That was the overriding message of "The Human Response to Disaster," a congressional briefing held April 24.

The briefing was part of the "Decade of Behavior," a multidisciplinary initiative that promotes the behavioral and social sciences' importance in solving societal problems, including safety issues. Sponsors included APA, the Association of American Geographers (AAG), the American Sociological Association (ASA) and the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society.

"We know that the public, our country, and our policy-makers are eager for the knowledge and the know-how, given the events of 9/11 and the need both to respond to and anticipate disasters, emergency circumstances, and other challenging events," said moderator Felice J. Levine, PhD, former executive officer of ASA and current executive director of the American Educational Research Association. "Social and behavioral scientists...have been working for decades identifying the right questions, testing theories and competing theories, and pursuing sustained empirical work."

Speakers included psychologist Baruch Fischhoff, PhD, an expert in risk communication, risk management, decision-making and protective behavior. "It is essential to integrate risk analysis and risk communication," said Fischhoff, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. "The success of our response to the threat of terrorism will depend on creating behaviorally realistic plans, and on sharing them with the people of this country. The behavioral sciences have critical roles to play in all these activities."

Geographer Douglas Richardson, PhD, strategic initiatives adviser at AAG, gave an overview of an AAG-National Science Foundation research project on the geographical dimensions of terrorism. Geography can be used to synthesize information about places, making it possible to "understand the linkages between regions and the local effects of global processes," he said.

"The use of geographic data and technologies was critical during the rescue, relief and longer-term recovery from the Sept. 11 events. Their prominence now in planning for homeland security and in international efforts to address the root causes of terrorism have generated a clear agenda of pressing research needs," Richardson added.

Other speakers included Kathleen J. Tierney, PhD, a sociology professor at the University of Delaware who also directs the university's Disaster Research Center, and University of Central Florida professor Eduardo Salas, PhD, a human factors expert on teamwork, team training, decision-making under stress and performance.

Salas emphasized that psychologists in his field can help legislators create policies, regulations and guidelines "grounded in scientific evidence about human performance."

James Kadtke, a staff member of the House Committee on Science who attended the packed briefing, said, "The social and psychological aspects of terrorism and homeland defense are one of the most overlooked and least appreciated at this point.... The "Decade of Behavior" briefing provided to congressional staff a remarkably enlightening overview of the central issues and the powerful tools that could be employed, some of them almost immediately."

--N. CRAWFORD