Behavioral and Social Sciences: Uncle Sam Wants You

When the Bush administration steps down next January, it will leave behind an ambitious proposal for greatly increasing the role of social and behavioral research in U.S. efforts to prop up unstable nations, “especially those threatened with armed conflict or civil strife.” In pursuit of this objective, the proposal calls for academe and industry to identify research opportunities for “solving real problems,” and for government to provide money for research as needed.

An obscure topic in any season, the proposal arrived in February, while news was dominated by primary politics, war, and the housing collapse, and went virtually unnoted.  Nonetheless, it rates serious attention for its design to expand the role of the social and behavioral sciences in national security endeavors, in a fashion akin to the long-ago call-up of the physical sciences and engineering.

Bequests from departing administrations are of uncertain viability. Nonetheless, one of the key figures in this matter is optimistic about its survival and growth in the next administration — John H. Marburger, III, the president’s science adviser and head of the White House Office of Science and Technology. “The people who will implement this,” he told me, “are far down in the agencies and will not change with the new administration.”

Titled Research and Development Challenges for Regional Stability and Capacity Building, the proposal was produced under the auspices of a little-known federal entity, the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC).  Nominally chaired by the President, the council membership includes the Vice President and cabinet officers and agency heads with major science and technology responsibilities. The NSTC is part of the White House advisory apparatus, headed by Marburger, and is supposed to develop and coordinate government-wide science and technology policy.  Workshops leading to the report were held in 2004-2005, with participants drawn from throughout the federal government, along with representatives from universities, industry, and think tanks.

The report harmonizes with a 2005 National Security Presidential Directive ordering federal agencies to strengthen their abilities to assist wobbly nations. In an introductory letter to the report, Marburger states, “Merging knowledge from social scientific fields (social, economic, political and behavioral sciences) with those from the traditional physical sciences and engineering fields will generate new techniques and approaches for understanding contingency environments of importance to national security.”

The report itself notes, “In general, new or emerging tools from the social, political, and behavioral sciences have not been effectively leveraged, targeted, or developed to significantly contribute to the rebuilding of conflict-torn societies or the stabilization of pre-conflict environments.”
Listed among research goals are development of “tools and approaches for crowd control” and “techniques and tools for detecting, tracking, and monitoring the actors and activities driving conflict (war lords, illicit power structures, insurgents, terrorists, militias).” The report states that it is “vital” for the U.S. government to be able to “influence public opinion domestically, globally, and within a host nation’s population…. Research is needed not only to enhance promulgation of coherent, consistent U.S. communication, but capabilities for understanding the needs, desires, and issues of individuals, groups/communities, and governments should be strengthened to enable targeted messages and interpretation of the impact of those messages.”

“The next step for the Federal S&T [science and technology] community,” the report concludes, “is to develop coordinated plans, for both internal USG [U.S. government] agencies and with private enterprise, to meet the R&D challenges identified in this report.”

No money has been provided for implementing the report, nor are any dollar amounts stated. Marburger said that action in response to the report will be left to the next administration. He describe the report as “a think piece to develop action-oriented ideas” and “an effort to get ideas from the [federal] agencies. It’s not a strategy document or a road map.” But he noted that after 9/11, some social and behavioral scientists “wanted to do something. The social science community came forward. The idea that the social sciences can contribute has gained currency,” he added, though observing that since then, interest has apparently dropped off. But Marburger expressed confidence that the report will take root in the next administration, regardless of who wins the election. He seemed confident that the time has come for the social and behavioral sciences to become more closely involved in government operations, particularly in the national-security area.

“The physical sciences have a big role in the economy, national goals, and national security. Shouldn’t the behavioral sciences contribute, too?” he asked.

Research and Development Challenges for Regional Stability and Capacity Building is online at: ♦

APS regularly opens certain online articles for discussion on our website. Effective February 2021, you must be a logged-in APS member to post comments. By posting a comment, you agree to our Community Guidelines and the display of your profile information, including your name and affiliation. Comments will be moderated. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations present in article comments are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of APS or the article’s author. For more information, please see our Community Guidelines.

Please login with your APS account to comment.