May-June 2009 Issue • Volume 37 • Issue 5

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Sociologists in Research and Applied Settings

This occasional column focuses on the interesting career paths and achievements of sociologists whose primary work in sociology is not in the academy or whose "extracurricular" work outside academic settings is noteworthy for its societal or policy impact. These sociologists are engaged directly with the public, applying methods of science and their sociological expertise

A Sociologist Tackles
Homeland Security

by John S. Verrico, Department of Homeland Security,
Science and Technology Directorate


Sharla Rausch

Sharla Rausch leads the research efforts in the "harder" science at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T), where she is head of S&T’s Human Factors/Behavioral Sciences Division (HF/BSD). While many have claimed Human Factors is the "soft" science, Rausch respectfully disagrees. "It’s the harder science," she explains, meaning the most difficult to understand and research. "Chemicals you can predict," she says. "People are another story."

Rausch is a trained sociologist, with many years experience in the federal government, including research and management positions at the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice, the National Institute of Corrections, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. She holds both a master’s and a doctoral degree in sociology and has had numerous works published in various academic and professional journals. Before joining the federal government in 1987, Rausch taught college-level courses for the University of Connecticut and Eastern Connecticut University. She also was on the research staff for the Psychology Department at the University of Connecticut and had her own research consulting business. When the September 11 attacks occurred, terrorism became a national challenge, and she came to DHS in 2003, within months of its establishment, serving as the Deputy for the Office of Systems Engineering and Development.

Rausch was the initial architect for S&T’s Human Factors/Behavioral Sciences Division, laying its foundation, constructing its vision, and developing the methods by which it would seek to improve detection, analysis, and understanding of the threats posed by radical elements; to enhance societal resilience; and to integrate human capabilities into the development of technology. She was appointed to the Senior Executive Service, the highest level that career federal employees can achieve, in October 2006.

Her background in social-behavioral research has served her very well at DHS, as have the rest of her experiences, both professional and personal (transitional skills she calls them). When the then-Under Secretary for S&T, Jay Cohen, came on board in 2006, he laid out a new organization for disciplines in the S&T Directorate, with Human Factors being one of them. As a whole, the Directorate was to bring scientific knowledge to bear on how we predict and respond to both terrorism and natural disasters and provide scientific support to the intelligence community. S&T was to guide the development of effective measures for deterrence, detection, and mitigation of terrorist acts.

"So," Under Secretary Cohen said in August 2006, "Who wants what?" Rausch quickly called out, "I’ll take Human Factors." She had come home to her roots as a social scientist.

The Human Factors research is about "understanding the roles of communities and organizations in moving individuals toward radicalization, or, away from it," Rausch explains. "It is about biometrics and improved screening techniques, as well as developing the science and technology for understanding and identifying hostile intent and helping communities better prepare for and respond to catastrophic events. It’s about incorporating the human factor into the development and deployment of technology. In short, it’s a messy problem—it involves the human element."

It also is a cross-cutting division, informing and playing a role in the development of technologies (and science) throughout the Directorate. For instance, the Explosives Division’s detection technology is informed by research on terrorists and their behavior, as well as by the application of human systems research and engineering to maximize system effectiveness, safety, usability, and public acceptance.

It is more about the "science" of terrorism, not the "psychology" of terrorism as all the social and behavioral sciences play a role, Rausch has noted. In a learned nod to her former life, she wants to improve the analytical capability at DHS in order to understand terrorist motivation and behavior. She wants to systematically incorporate user and public input when looking at the problems, and she wants to understand the social, psychological and economic aspects of community resilience if "the bomber does get through," or if we are hit with natural disasters, because "natural disasters, too, are on our plate."

Rausch and her expert staff of psychologists, sociologists, economists, lawyers, statisticians, physicists, and engineers understand that everything ultimately comes down to the human aspect. They tackle topics ranging from understanding the intent and motivation of terrorist individuals/groups and how radicalization leads to violence, to how we address catastrophic events, and the way we develop technologies that are not only effective, but publicly acceptable. They are tackling a very unwieldy constellation of difficulties.

Numerous research projects, programs, and technologies are being funded by Rausch’s team. They manage to wrap their arms around some amazingly thorny challenges. Some of the projects that the HF/BSD researchers are currently tackling include the following:

It is a full plate, but as Rausch points out, "we don’t do it alone." We work closely with DHS operational components, such as the Transportation Security Agency, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and Customs and Border Protection, as well as state and local first responders to identify capability gaps. We then leverage, fund, or partner with other federal agencies, countries, universities, industry, national labs, and DHS Centers of Excellence, such as the University of Maryland’s START (Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism), to develop the solutions.

At the end of the day, Sharla Rausch turns over what she has learned in her mind, calls colleagues and experts, bats ideas around with them, and focuses her strategies. When asked at a recent conference what her biggest challenge was, Sharla responded, "staying one step ahead of the bad guys without negatively impacting the good guys. It’s putting the human in the equation."

As Rausch reminds her staff on those days that overwhelm,
"it’s not a job for sissies." logo_small


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