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Social Sciences Turn Expertise to Terrorism and 9-11; an ASA Priority for 2002 Annual Meeting, Too

The social and behavioral science community is turning its attention and expertise to terrorism and what we know and need to know. In September and October, many scientific societies including the American Sociological Association (ASA) issued statements and posted website information on experts and resources. The November issues of Footnotes reported on 13 rapid grants issued by the National Science Foundation to launch important research on 9-11 events, including five in the social sciences. January Footnotes also included a feature story on the launch of a major website by the Social Science Research Council that presents social science analyses on the situation “After September 11” with approximately 50 scholarly articles addressing this issue. The seriousness of purpose throughout the research community is palpable to ensure that sound knowledge is brought to bear or produced where it does not exist.

The science agencies of the Federal government and the National Academies (of Sciences, Engineering, the Institute of Medicine, and the National Research Council) have also taken aggressive steps. The Academies have established a high profile Committee on Science and Technology for Countering Terrorism to help the government to develop a science and technology program plan and research strategy for combating terrorism. For its first phase, the Committee has set forth accomplishing three tasks in six months: (1) delineate a framework for the application of science and technology for countering terrorism, (2) prepare research agendas in seven key areas, and (3) examine a series of cross-cutting issues. One of the seven areas is behavioral, social, and institutional issues.

The Committee is co-chaired by Lewis Branscomb, emeritus Director of the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and Richard Klausner, former Director of the National Cancer Institute. This blue-ribbon group is comprised of 24 members, including sociologist (and former ASA President) Neil Smelser. The effort aims to assist the government with both its near-term needs for scientific and technical advice and its longer-term needs for strengthening our institutional capacity for combating terrorism. This work began in December, 2001, and a final report is expected by May 31, 2002.

The Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (DBSSE) at the National Research Council (NRC) also established a special panel—the Panel on Behavioral, Social, and Institutional Issues—to provide guidance on terrorism. Operating under the aegis of the Branscomb-Klausner Committee on Science and Technology for Countering Terrorism, this Panel is charged with writing a report that will include (1) a typology of terrorism; (2) an evaluation of the current state of knowledge and capacity for dealing with the most significant threats; and (3) a research agenda. Smelser, retired Director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences and Chair of the DBSSE Committee, and anthropologist Robert McCormick Adams, former Director of the Smithsonian Institution, serve as co-chairs of this 10-member group. Launched in January 2002, the Panel plans to issue a final report within six months.

Through the NRC Committee on Law and Justice (within DBSSE), the social sciences are also addressing a range of important issues with respect to terrorism. The Committee is currently in the process of establishing a Forum to be chaired by Former Deputy Attorney General Phillip Heyman (now at Harvard Law School) and Michael Chertoff, Assistant Attorney General of the Criminal Division. The purpose of this activity is to summarize social science knowledge on the roots of terrorism in both the United States and the Muslim world. Papers will address understanding international terrorism in general and specifically based on sociological and political science research. Also, the Forum will examine aspects of terrorism in the Middle East, how terrorists organize themselves, use of profiling in combating terrorism, money laundering, and collective behavior of populations under terrorist threats. A meeting of the Forum is planned for March.

In addition to these efforts within the National Academies, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has also launched a Federal interagency working group for the social, behavioral, and education sciences as part of its Antiterrorism Task Force. The working group is being co-chaired by Norman Bradburn, Assistant Director at the National Science Foundation for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE) and Raynard Kington, Director of the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). With leadership and support from James Griffin, Assistant Director for Social and Behavioral Sciences and Education at OSTP, the interagency working group will identify important research that can be useful to the antiterrorism agenda and also areas where further research is essential.

All of these activities are on a fast track. Government and the public seek knowledge that can make a difference in understanding and addressing terrorism. The social scientists in these groups aim to convey what is known, what the limits of this knowledge are, and what should constitute a priority agenda of work. By next August, when the American Sociological Association convenes its Annual Meeting, many new reports and papers should be available. A special plenary is being planned addressed to September 11th and its consequences.