Public Policy Update

Since 9/11, psychologists have searched for opportunities to contribute to the nation's counter-terrorism and homeland security agenda. This year brings to fruition three efforts--recently made public--that harness the obvious potential of psychological and behavioral research:

  • A report from the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), "Combating Terrorism: Research Priorities in the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences," which highlights research priorities regarding the prediction, preparation and response to terrorist attacks. The report will serve as a unique resource for those who advocate for the value of psychology and other social sciences within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and on Capitol Hill.

  • The creation of the Homeland Security Center of Excellence for Behavioral and Social Research on Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism, which will bring together the best social and behavioral research to better understand the roots of terrorism and how to respond to terrorist attacks.

  • The solicitation of research proposals for a fifth DHS Center of Excellence, which will study high-consequence event preparedness and response, also drawing on behavioral science research.

APA thanks the many psychologists and other social scientists in government and academia for helping to secure these critical initiatives.

The NSTC report

The NSTC effort dates back to early 2002 when John Marburger, PhD, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), formed an antiterrorism task force to map out a multiyear social science research and development agenda for homeland security, among other tasks. In 2003, that work was taken over by NSTC's Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences (SBES) Subcommittee of the NSTC Committees on Science and Homeland and National Security. Fortuitously, APA fellow and former visiting APA Senior Scientist Susan Brandon, PhD, who had been appointed OSTP's assistant director of social, behavioral and economic sciences, joined the SBES Subcommittee to guide the interagency initiative on behalf of President Bush's science adviser. At APA, Brandon had helped steer much of the association's scientific outreach relevant to counter-terrorism after 9/11.

Reflecting on her role and the ongoing work being conducted through NSTC, Brandon noted "the SBES Subcommittee is an opportunity for the social and behavioral sciences to have a voice and a presence at the table that is unique in recent Washington policy processes." And in fact the report is unique, as no such NSTC document exists describing research priorities for the nonsocial science disciplines relevant to combating terrorism.

Many other psychologists committed time, effort and intellectual capitol to the report, including Norman Bradburn, PhD, and Philip Rubin, PhD, representing the National Science Foundation, James Griffin, PhD, representing OSTP, Kirk Hubbard, PhD, representing the CIA, and Mark Shepanek, PhD, representing NASA. The report is available at www.ostp.gov/nstc/html/terror.pdf.

The homeland security centers

The Jan. 10 announcement of the new Homeland Security Center of Excellence for Behavioral and Social Research on Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism was the culmination of nine months of effort by psychology's advocates.

Funded with $12 million over three years, the center will be housed at the University of Maryland and will be jointly directed by APA members Arie Kruglanski, PhD, and Clark McCauley, PhD, criminologist Gary LaFree, PhD, and sociologist Kathleen Tierney, PhD.

The center will "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," says Kruglanski, Distinguished University Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland. "Our team will include a wide variety of social scientists including psychologists, sociologists, political scientists, geographers and criminologists."

McCauley, director of the University of Pennsylvania Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict, notes that the interdisciplinary nature of the center has a historical precedent.

"An early model for this kind of collaboration was World War II's Manhattan Project, which brought a diverse group of scientists and mathematicians to work together on the first atomic weapon," he explains. "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."

DHS began to consider developing a grant announcement for a center devoted to social and behavioral issues last spring and invited input from APA and other relevant scientific organizations. Although the original plan called for the creation of two centers--one focused broadly on understanding "root causes" of terrorism, the other on responding to terrorist events--the two were combined for budgetary reasons. For several months, APA's science policy staff worked to help mold the grant announcement via discussions with DHS science and technology staff, OSTP and many individual APA member-scientists.

The announcement, released July 6, clearly reflected APA's input. To bring the best scientists into the fold, APA science policy staff 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 with full proposals due Sept. 30, an unusually short turnaround time. 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 range of psychology disciplines. 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.

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 DHS announcement. Importantly, the center will also foster strong educational components integrating pre- and postdoctoral 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.

Brandon, who was drawn in regularly to consult with DHS throughout the competition cycle says: "The center offers new opportunities for conducting important social and behavioral science research--something to be excited about in a time of real pressure on budgets across federal science agencies."

The center will not only cross disciplinary boundaries but national and methodological ones as well, believes Kruglanski. "We are collaborating with major American and international universities and institutes with strengths in relevant domains of the social sciences," he explains. "Our databases will be correspondingly diverse to include large event-based databanks, economic, demographic and political databases, surveys, focus groups and interviews, as well as gaming and simulation experiments."

McCauley notes that the center's 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." He adds that the center will be collaborating with three existing Centers of Excellence and perhaps three more yet to be named.

Indeed, in his remarks at the University of Maryland, College Park, in January, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge noted DHS plans for the next Center of Excellence, which, he said, "will study high- consequence event preparedness and response--yet another layer of integration, communication and protection added to the great work being done by so many citizens in every field of study and walk of life in our country." (See sidebar for details on the announcement and the proposed center's research.)

Dr. Geoffrey Mumford is APA's director of science policy.