- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 13, 2005

Does the United States need another Manhattan Project? The consensus after September 11 was yes; we need something analogous to fight terrorism. The difficulty was, terrorism is behavioral and social, and social science is not physics. Technical fixes to end a war like the Manhattan Project promised to be elusive. But maybe the model of government-academic collaboration could be adapted. We would need to ignore the majority of social scientists scornful of government cooperation, of course. But perhaps some new Albert Wohlstetters and Herman Kahns could be found to do some expansive thinking about combatting terrorism.

That ambitious prospect must have been on Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge’s mind as he announced a new $12 million academic research center on counterterrorism at the University of Maryland on Monday. Christened the Center of Excellence for Behavioral and Social Research on Terrorism and Counter-terrorism, it will be one of five such centers nationwide. “Too often, policy-makers have had to counter terrorists on the basis of assumptions and guesstimates,” founding director Gary LaFree said Monday. “Our job will be to give them more solid information to work with.”

Tellingly, the center’s founding scholars except one are not political scientists and none is a prominent Middle East specialist. Mr. LaFree is a criminologist who studies violent crime. The other seven include two disaster- and hazards-research specialists, a geographer, psychologists who study terrorism and a think-tanker. It’s not hard to see why a results-oriented research center would want to avoid academic political scientists and Middle East specialists. “The sad fact is that American Middle East experts have made precious few contributions of lasting value to U.S. policymaking over the course of a generation,” write Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson in the current issue of the National Interest. The discipline has become too politicized and too enamored of anti-Western leftists like Edward Said to produce much of value for policy-makers.

Government-backed research centers are notorious for issuing reports and not much else, but occasionally a gem will emerge. The best way to view them is as a venture-capitalist sees biotech investments: The chances of failure are high, and no one knows for sure what they will produce. But some could have big payoffs. We’re pleased to see Mr. Ridge capping his three-plus years of service with some investments for the future. It’s up to Mr. LaFree and colleagues to make them yield dividends.

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