Feature

The Department of Defense (DoD) should consider doubling its funding for basic research in the behavioral and social sciences, both to better address the conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to meet future military needs, finds a report by the National Research Council (NRC), an arm of the National Academies charged with providing independent analysis to the federal government on topics in science, engineering and medicine.

"The need for basic research in the behavioral and social sciences in the military is very great right now, and the budget across the services is quite low," says University of California at Santa Barbara, social psychologist James J. Blascovich, PhD, who chaired the NRC committee that wrote the report. "There are many important areas the military needs to focus on, and this report tries to help them define that focus."

The U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences-one of the military's main social science research entities-charged the NRC with examining research in the area and helping it to develop a long-term research agenda. The panel consisted of 12 social and behavioral science experts whose work is relevant to military operations.

The panel concluded that across all services, the DoD should expand funding in at least six areas:

  • Intercultural competence, including learning a second language and cross-cultural negotiation.

  • Teams in complex environments.

  • Technology training informed by evidence-based knowledge about learning, not simply driven by available technology.

  • Nonverbal communication in the context of areas such as leadership, persuasion, negotiation, cultural fluency, training and learning.

  • Emotions in the military milieu, including better understanding troops' emotions in stressful situations, and the effects of such emotions on their long-term health and functioning.

  • Behavioral neurophysiology, or research on neurophysiological markers such as cardiovascular, endocrine and central nervous system markers, that could provide unbiased, objective assessment methods for personnel selection, training and performance evaluation.

The report recommends an increase of basic research funding from the current level of about $37.6 million across services to about $75 million, which would support about 40 new projects a year-enough to make a difference on the ground in the short- and long-term, the report states.

"Without such support," it states, "basic behavioral and social science research is not likely to meet those needs."

The importance of people

The report is significant in two ways, says APA Executive Director for Science Steven Breckler, PhD. For one, it emphasizes that current gaps in military knowledge and expertise are related to human behavior, not just the need for better technology and equipment-a message that has been dimly heard in recent years.

"A lot of commentators point out that many mistakes being made in Iraq and Afghanistan happen because military personnel are poorly prepared to deal with different cultures," Breckler says. "This report says that researching and educating our people on the ground in areas such as intercultural competence and reading emotions will ultimately lead to more efficient, effective interventions."

For another, the report comes from a highly respected independent body, and is therefore likely to have clout on Capitol Hill, notes APA Science Policy Officer Heather O'Beirne Kelly, PhD, who says the report's six areas echo many that APA has been advocating for years.

"It will definitely help us make our argument to legislators," she says. The soonest the report is likely to have an impact is for fiscal year 2009, for which the president's budget request comes out in February, she adds.

The report comes during a long period of waning military funding for these types of projects-an about-face from previous decades, when some of psychology's most cutting-edge research was linked to military collaborations and funding, says APA's Breckler. According to the report, psychology and the social sciences were allotted just 3 percent of DoD's $5.7 billion research budget in 2005, compared with 53 percent for engineering and 15 percent for mathematics and computer science.

The document puts an appropriate emphasis back on the importance of people, Breckler adds.

"Here is an independent body of scientists that is saying to the government, 'Look, you really have to get back to the place where you can get some mileage out of your research,'" he says. "When you think about DoD missions and where we need to know new things, it has to do with the people of the military."


Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.