The role of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in securing the national defense largely involves funding some of the basic research that its federal partners—such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Army Research Laboratory, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the Office of Naval Research and the Naval Research Laboratory, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security—later use to develop mission-specific tools and applications. Three examples of the contributions of social, behavioral, and economic (SBE) research to national defense are described below. Additional examples are described in the next section of this report, on how SBE research advances the mission of other federal agencies.
NSF played an early role in supporting research on terrorism and counterterrorism, beginning in the late 1980s. Recognizing that terrorists’ behavior responds to counterterrorism policies in rational ways, this research used game theory (see Box 2) to develop a model to inform counterterror policy.77 The U.S. Departments of Homeland Security and Defense have sponsored subsequent applications of this research. These applications have focused on government hostage negotiations; an evaluation of the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) cooperative program for combating international terrorism; the value of counterterror intelligence; and the first evaluation of the use of metal detectors to screen airline passengers.78
NSF has funded research examining the root causes of political instability and indicators of early observable cues that a change in governance or political state is imminent. That research specifically studied cooperation and conflict, ethnic conflict, state stability, governance, and terrorism.79 This foundational research was applied through support from DARPA and the U.S. Navy to create the Worldwide Integrated Crisis Early Warning System, which provides policy makers, operational commanders, and intelligence analysts insights and forecasts of changes in political stability.
Social network analysis identifies and allows people to understand the relationships among individuals, organizations, and entities.80 It can illuminate key characteristics of relationships, such as the frequency of communication, affiliation, and other social relationships. Social network analysis can be applied to telephone data, school records, organizational structures, or any other relationship-based data. As an example, some NSF-supported research has combined social network analysis with automated text analysis techniques to provide valuable information about the patterns of behavior of hackers and the vulnerabilities of the nation’s cyber networks. These tools analyze hacker chats and other data faster and more efficiently than had previously been possible, with the potential to improve predictions about future threats that are based on hackers’ intentions.81 The U.S. Department of Defense and intelligence agencies have developed additional applications of social network analysis for military and intelligence operations.