Behavioral Science Drafted to Fight Terrorism

Not surprisingly, the recent changes in the world have enormous implications for science. Many in the scientific community are calling for increased federal spending on new technologies and theories that will better equip our society and the world to cope with terrorism and the current state of fear. This is difficult to accomplish, however, when the federal government needs to divert so much money to defense and security. Will science be pitted against defense, or will science actually benefit from the nation’s new priority on security?

John Marburger III, the relatively new science advisor to the president and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, recently talked about these and related issues at a symposium entitled, “The War on Terrorism: What Does it Mean for Science?” hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Marburger announced the formation of an antiterrorism task force under the National Science and Technology Council1. The task force will have five working groups, one of which will focus on social and behavioral sciences. Because technology is playing a major part in the efforts to cope with terrorism and to combat it, there also needs to be a concentration on integrating disciplines. Marburger views the integration of technology and behavioral and social sciences as critical. “Social and behavioral sciences will be emphasized during my tenure at OSTP,” Marburger added.

APS Fellow and Charter Member Alan Leshner, who became AAAS Executive Director in December, remarked that we need to discover a way to best bring the power of science to bear on the nation’s newest crisis. He added that terrorism thrives on manipulation and fear, which are scientific constructs themselves, thus presenting an opportunity for the scientific community to contribute to the national good. This will only happen, Leshner added, if the science community discusses these issues openly.

William Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering, complied with Leshner’s request, giving a candid talk on the impact of 9-11 on science and research. He proclaimed that any solution to the problem of terrorism will have a significant science and technology component – including behavioral and social sciences. “A great deal of research needs to be done. … we need to understand these people.” However, Wulf likened the war against terrorism not to World War II, but to the Cold War, when mutually assured destruction always loomed, and the threat of attack and retaliation was a powerful deterrent. The difference this time around, he said, is that deterrence is only effective when there is a threat to something that the enemy values. In the case of terrorists, Wulf stated, we do not know what they value, making deterrence very difficult.

In addition to the science community, there is growing recognition among policy makers that behavioral science can contribute to this effort. Recent legislation introduced by Senators Edward M. Kennedy, D-MA, and Bill Frist, R-TN, calls for the establishment of the Emergency Public Information and Communications task force, to be composed of “individuals with expertise in public health, communications, behavioral psychology [emphasis added], and other areas …” whose purpose shall be to make recommendations and “report on appropriate ways to communicate information regarding biological attacks to the public.”

Behavioral science can also contribute to security and safety. The conference report accompanying S. 1477, the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, calls for a basic level of aptitude in airport screeners when it comes to color perception, as well as visual and aural acuity. These basic skills, including visual attention, are rooted in psychological science, as detailed in the Human Capital Initiative report Basic Research in Psychological Science (HCI Report 6, February 1998, available online at the APS Web site, www.psychologicalscience.org). The input of behavioral sciences in training new security personnel is critical.

Marburger, a physicist, said “I want to cool down the fever of concern in the scientific community that research funding and opportunities will be diverted into serving the needs of the military as in World War II,” he said. “This administration is determined not to let terrorism deflect the US position as the world leader in science.” He pointed out that not only will science funds not be diverted, but the war on terrorism can actually be a windfall for science, as World War II was. He even envisions OSTP serving as the research and development component of the Office of Homeland Security.

America’s involvement in WWII gave an enormous boost to research in psychology, and also accelerated the research in scientific theories in quantum physics, chemistry and the structure of matter, giving birth to the nuclear age. Now, as the war on terrorism is being fought, Marburger sees the science as a key element. “We are not starting from scratch,” he added. “But the real challenge is to deploy the knowledge we already have effectively.”

Never has the “giving away” of psychology in the public interest been more important or more urgent, to APS or to the public. The war on terrorism needs to use all the weapons in the arsenal, and science – including behavioral science – will be among the big guns.


1 The NSTC is a Cabinet-level panel appointed by the president to coordinate the diverse parts of the federal research and development enterprise. Members include the vice president, the assistant to the president for science and technology, cabinet secretaries and agency heads with significant science and technology responsibilities, and other White House officials.
Observer Vol.15, No.2 February, 2002

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