Behavioral Science and National Security

In a rare joint hearing of the House Armed Services Committee and the Science and Technology Committee, behavioral and social science got top billing.

On April 28, 2008, the chair of the Research and Science Education Subcommittee,  Rep. Brian Baird (D-WA), and the chair of the Armed Forces Subcommittee, Adam Smith (D-WA),  held a hearing on “The Role of the Social and Behavioral Sciences in National Security” to explore the ways in which behavioral and social sciences help U.S. soldiers at war.  The subcommittees heard witness testimony from Army Colonel Martin Schweitzer; André van Tilborg, Deputy Under-Secretary of Defense (Science and Technology), Department of Defense; Mark Weiss, Director, Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences, NSF; and David Segal, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for Research on Military Organization, University of Maryland.

“One of my goals is to raise the profile of the social sciences, but also to emphasize that they have to have more relevance than they sometimes do,” Rep. Baird said.  “We hope to expand the awareness in Congress of the new challenges our military is facing, and the new resources we need to meet those changes.”

The ranking Republican on the Science & Technology Subcommittee, Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), said that “social and behavioral research is of crucial importance to this entire nation and our own security as we move forward in an ever-changing world filled not only with new technological advancements, but also with increasingly complicated human dimensions.”

One particularly interesting theme of the hearing that has been a magnet for controversy is the use of social scientists to help soldiers operate more effectively in Afghanistan and Iraq.  For the past several years, the US military has employed “Human Terrain Teams” (HTT) of five to eight social and behavioral scientists, which are tasked with gathering information about the individual and social aspects of the “human terrain” and turning these findings into usable information for military commanders.  Schweitzer, fresh from a 15-month deployment to Afghanistan, emphasized that the “center of gravity” in warfare is shifting and the understanding of people and their relationships with others (including a new government) is invaluable and life-saving.

For example, the success of military operations that use HTTs can be measured in reduced violence.  After many failed attempts to get the village elders of a certain district of Afghanistan to work cooperatively with the military and stem the tide of attacks, the HTT suggested that the mullahs might be more effective power brokers.  “After redirecting their outreach to the mullahs, the brigade experienced a rapid and dramatic decrease in Taliban attacks, to the point where this area is currently attack-free,” Schweitzer said.  “Not only did we reduce the risk to our soldiers, but we reduced the risk significantly to the communities that we operated within.”

The rigor of basic behavioral science, a perennial topic of interest in Congress, cropped up once again.  André van Tilborg, Undersecretary for Science and Technology at the Department of Defense, praised the way basic research is conducted in this country, stating that “it’s important to respect the relationship of NSF with the scientific community”, and that the DoD has no business messing with it.  Rather, the DoD develops techniques to draw on this research for its own purposes.

Mac Thornberry (R-TX) called into question the rigor of behavioral and social science methodology, given the difficulties of conducting terrorism research in the field.  The panel concurred that field of behavioral research does indeed pose challenges because of the dearth of controlled experiments.  But all emphatically agreed that the science is no less rigorous than any other; rather, given the inherent restrictions the scientists adapt as best they can to the environment.  Smith chimed in, saying that the behavioral and social sciences provide valuable information on the likelihood of certain behaviors and actions.

“Our country has invested billions of dollars in mapping the physical terrain of combat zones based on the recognition that it would be foolhardy to send our soldiers into unknown terrain because it would endanger our soldiers and their mission,” said  Rep. Baird.  “What I find so encouraging and interesting about today’s hearing is the recognition that human terrain, which we may not be able to map by satellite or GPS, is just as important to the success of our mission, the survival of our soldiers, and the people we’re trying to protect.”


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