Spy agencies team up with National Academies
Expanded ties include new board, first-ever survey of social sciences
By Jeffrey Mervis
In an unprecedented move, U.S. intelligence agencies are teaming up with
the nation’s most prestigious scientific body in a bid to make better
use of findings from the country’s leading social and behavioral scientists.
The partnership between the Office of the Director of National
Intelligence (ODNI) in Tysons Corner, Virginia, and the National
Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine aims to build bridges
between communities that historically have either ignored one another or
butted heads. The effort includes the creation of a permanent
Intelligence Community Studies Board at the academies, which will meet
for the first time next week, as well as a first-ever study of how
social and behavioral science research might strengthen national security.
David Honey, ODNI director of science and technology under Director of
National Intelligence James Clapper, says he hopes that the new
partnership will help the intelligence community improve how it collects
and analyzes information. He and others are eager for help picking out
useful and relevant research, as well as grasping where there is a lack
of good science. Understanding “the limitations of our knowledge,” says
Robert Fein, a national security psychologist in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, and a member of the new intelligence board, “will help to
protect us against armies of snake oil salesmen.”
One area in dire need of better research is figuring out when people are
lying, Fein says.
After the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, he notes,
intelligence agencies poured money into research on both
mechanical-—think polygraphs—-and behavioral-—think
interrogations—-methods of detecting deception. But the results were
disappointing, recalls Fein, who led a 2006 report on interrogation
techniques for the director of national intelligence. “Researchers
overpromised,” he says, “and there were few useful results after
millions of dollars were spent.”
Even research that generated solid results had serious flaws, he adds.
“For example, none of the studies [of deception] involved people who
didn’t speak English,” Fein notes, making them of questionable value for
use in many current hot spots around the globe.
Last week, Honey harvested the first fruits of the fledgling
collaboration at a 2-day public summit in Washington, D.C., designed to
feed ideas into the upcoming survey of social and behavioral science.
Prominent researchers presented talks on everything from decision-making
under stress to how social media fuel conspiracy theories. In addition,
a panel of intelligence analysts offered a rare glimpse into their
classified world and how scientific results need to be tweaked before
they can be applied to intelligence and policy.
“Scholars like to say, ‘In general, X is the case.’ But as
practitioners, we are asked to respond to a specific situation,”
explained Charles Gaukel of the National Intelligence Council in
Washington, D.C., which consists of senior officials from each of the 16
intelligence agencies across the government. Gaukel also debunked the
popular notion that intelligence analysts try to forecast global events.
“Our role is not to make predictions,” he said. “Rather, we try to give
policy-makers a sense of what’s out there, and how the enemy is likely
The new survey won’t follow the usual blueprint for so-called decadal
surveys, which look ahead 10 years. Traditionally, decadal studies help
a particular discipline, such as astrophysics or geoscience, set
priorities among competing facilities and projects. They may also
recommend how federal agencies can fill gaps and maximize their research
In contrast, the new study won’t seek to balance competing demands for
scientific facilities or examine existing research portfolios at the
intelligence agencies. Instead, Honey hopes it will identify current and
future research areas that might be useful for national security.
Speaking at the summit, Fein suggested that those on the decadal survey
might want to convene a panel of intelligence practitioners who would
propose areas “that might benefit from the relevant perspectives, data,
and knowledge” of social and behavioral scientists.
“I can’t forecast what we will learn” from the study, Honey says. “But
the history of decadal studies shows their value in pointing to where
the research community is headed.”
The survey is expected to take 2 years, and more than 300 people have
been nominated for the panel’s 18 slots. Despite that strong show of
interest, some scientists who support the effort worry that getting
involved could harm their research because of public unease about the
spy agencies’ activities.
“I’m a citizen scientist, and I think this collaboration is great,” says
Paul Glimcher, a neuroeconomist at New York University in New York City
who spoke at the summit about the Kavli HUMAN project, a deep dive into
the behavior and characteristics of 10,000 New York City residents that
he leads. But he says his team has “promised our subjects that the data
will never be shared with the government. And I’m concerned they might
react negatively to my being involved in a study funded by U.S.
Some observers see the new intelligence board as a successor to an ODNI
science advisory panel that Clapper abolished after becoming the
nation’s top spy in 2010. “It seems like at least an admission that the
abandonment of [that advisory board] was a mistake and that there is an
important role for independent advice from academics to the intelligence
community,” says Steven Aftergood, who leads the government secrecy
project at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C.
Gaukel may have inadvertently given the pending decadal survey its
marching orders during his summit talk on what intelligence analysts do.
“We’re looking for truth,” he said. “But we’re particularly looking for
truth that works.”
Science 14 OCTOBER 2016 • VOL 354 ISSUE 6309 DOI: