When Secretary Janet Napolitano used the word “man-made disaster” to describe the current terrorist threat facing Americans, you would have thought that she understood that terrorists aren’t machines and are in fact human. It comes as a surprise then that the Obama Administration is rumored to have set its laser on killing the DHS Science and Technology Directorate’s human factors research budget.
What is “human factors research”, you ask? It is a fancy term for studying the way humans behave and interact—humans like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab—the man now dubbed as the recent Christmas Day “underwear bomber.” Science tends to suggest that by studying the way humans operate, the U.S. can better predict what their next choices might be, and perhaps help to stop them from doing things like blowing up airplanes. This information would be handy for a whole host of homeland security functions. But DHS seems to have decided that this type of information isn’t very useful—and that the directorate should focus on other endeavors deemed more important.
If DHS isn’t researching how to stop terrorists, what will it research? The worst case scenario would be that S & T becomes a gadget factory, pumping out new fangled toys all day long but with little added security to show for it. It’s important that the Secretary gives the S & T directorate the latitude to innovate, and the money to experiment, but it is also vital that DHS remembers what they are there for—to stop acts of terrorism—man-made or otherwise.
My colleague, James Carafano, recently discussed the Christmas Day plot and drafted a Presidential To Do List for helping to plug gaps in the terrorist travel system. He suggests six other ways we can stop terrorists from getting through airport security. All of the steps recognize, however, that terrorists are humans—humans that can be stopped if we have the right information to stop them. Predicting their movements at the earliest stages—a benefit afforded through increased human factors knowledge—can help to facilitate this process.