Before transferring to the University of Michigan, Cody Giddings — now a Public Policy junior — attended the United States Military Academy at West Point. As a Military Academy cadet, Giddings developed an interest in international security, in part through his interaction with professors, some of whom had experience gathering information for military purposes.
At West Point, Giddings explored this interest by assisting on a security-related research project. The opportunity allowed him to develop a deep knowledge in subject areas pertinent to the safety of U.S. citizens — areas receiving a considerable increase in attention post-9/11 and that remain important today.
The 2001 terrorist attacks prompted a tangible and immediate shift in perspective on U.S. national security. It also evidenced a gap between in the level of information that the government had on terrorist activity and the level needed to keep the United States safe from other potential attacks.
Even after 14 years, the fear of a subsequent attack has not subsided to pre-9/11 levels. According to a Gallup poll conducted in March 2014, 39 percent of Americans were worried a “great deal” about future attacks.
The concern is justified, evidenced by more recent terrorist activity in both the United States and abroad — including targeted attacks in Paris against the satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo.”
Efforts to combat such acts of terrorism require a host of information on the structure, dynamics and interactions of terrorist groups. While this knowledge is most often gathered by state organizations such as the CIA, certain projects have been subcontracted to the University and various research institutes nationwide.
In 2011, for instance, the University received $62.7 million in Defense Department funding. Though much of this funding went to projects based in the health and engineering research, other areas of study, such as the social sciences, make up a unique component of the work going on at the University contributing to national security efforts.
DOD-funded social science research doesn’t just contribute to national security efforts. These projects also provide student researchers with a unique opportunity to develop research skills through real-world applications.
When Giddings transferred to the University, he assisted on a project focused on studying the alliances between terrorist organizations through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program — a University program that helps underclassmen find jobs as research assistants in labs across campus. Philip Potter, a former public policy assistant professor, manages the project in conjunction with the University of Denver and the University of Pennsylvania. Under the Defense Department’s Minerva Initiative, which provides funding to universities for social science research, the project posed a unique opportunity to contribute to national security by exploring the relationship dynamics of non-state violent actors.
“When I ended up deciding to leave, I wanted to be able to contribute more than I was at West Point,” Giddings said. “So that’s why I came here — because it was one of the biggest research universities in the world, and I knew that Dr. Potter had been putting something unique together, and I wanted to be a part of it.”
The project is unique in its attempt to collect and code data on every terrorist organization in the world in a centralized database. And it is the first effort to do so, according to Rackham Student Isaac Jenkins, a graduate student manager for the project.
Students working on the project are tasked with researching and coding information on the interactions and relationships between various violent non-state actions, and in doing so, develop a deep knowledge of the politics of terrorism.
“I have seen students in our group meetings who are far more knowledgeable on terrorist organization, and rebel group alliances and relationship dynamics than almost anyone else,” Jenkins said. “Students that are working on this project have developed expertise. It’s actually quite extraordinary.”
Students working on the project were exposed to the methods and dynamics of social science research, allowing them to not only learn about the various terrorist organizations that they were researching, but also their academic discipline.
For LSA sophomore Erin Eusebi, who also came to the project through UROP, this academic element was especially important. She said her experience on the project has contributed to her current interest in pursuing a graduate degree in political science and a career in research by allowing her to see the ways in which academic research can bring different perspectives to issues of national security.
Through her work, Eusebi was also able to connect with a mentor, who provided information on pursuing an advanced degree.
Psychology Prof. James Jackson, director of the University’s Institute for Social Research, said undergraduate researchers involved in social science projects often have the opportunity to grow in both their research and writing skills. These roles can allow for significant development, and some experienced undergraduate researchers may even assist with analyses or paper writing on their projects.
Those working on projects designed to help contribute to national security seem to have an additional benefit — the opportunity to contribute to research that they personally find impactful.
“It’s often hard, especially on defense projects, to see the full impact you’re having,” Giddings said. “I do know that just coming from West Point and knowing people who were currently in Afghanistan and Iraq that I was personal friends with … every bit, detail helps, every piece of information can save someone’s life … It’s projects like this that are going to support efforts that we have going on abroad.”
However, not every social science project designed to promote security is related to terrorism.
This past year, the Defense Department awarded more than $2.4 million in funding to the Defense Manufacturing Assistance Program, which is run through the University’s Institute for Research on Labor, Employment and the Economy, in conjunction with Ohio State University and Purdue University.
The DMAP project is designed to help struggling small and medium-sized defense sector suppliers prevent layoffs, job losses and plant closures during periods of lower military spending, such as peacetime.
Should the country need to mobilize for war, capacity and capability to produce necessary equipment must be available, according to Larry Molnar, ILREE associate director. Because companies that have gone out of business can’t be mobilized in the event of an unexpected attack, keeping private sector defense suppliers viable is important to overall military preparedness.
“We don’t want to be in the situation where we have to respond (militarily) and we don’t have the infrastructure, and the capacity, and the capability to be able to provide critical technology,” Molnar said.
Military industry also provides jobs and other benefits to local communities. If the companies see less demand, those communities can face hard times. Preventing these hardships is another goal of the DMAP project, which attempts to work with the communities to provide support as well as stabilize firms to prevent the need for job loss.
While the DMAP project has a different mission from the Minerva-funded social science project, the undergraduate students who work on it similarly have the opportunity to develop a broad set of skills as well as make a difference.
According to Molnar, the students work to identify companies that might benefit from a partnership with the project. For these students, the work they’re doing has a tangible impact for the employees the project attempts to help, their families and the surrounding community, in addition to contributing to national security efforts.
“What they’re doing is not a theoretical or academic exercise,” Molnar said. “We’re working with real companies, with real people.”
At the University, another Defense Department project contributes funding to the Army Study to Assess Risk and Resilience in Servicemembers project, which studies suicide prevention for men and women serving in the Armed Forces.
Since the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 3,000 military service men and women have died through suicide, while more than 6,800 died in combat during the same period. In 2012 and 2013, more servicemen and women died by suicide than by any other means, including combat.
“The Army STARRS project has been involved with the ways in which we can improve the health and well-being and resilience of the American soldier,” Jackson said.
The project, which is run in conjunction with the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Harvard Medical School, the University of California, San Diego and the National Institute of Mental Health, represents the largest effort to collect data on and study military personnel mental health risk.
The Army STARRS project is rooted in psychology, representing the diverse ways in which University research contributes to national security.
But this might come as little surprise. In 2013, the University had a $1.33 billion research budget. However, situated in Ann Arbor, far from the bureaucratic politics of Washington, the University’s participation in national defense research may sometimes go unnoticed.
Such efforts allow undergraduate student researchers the opportunity to contribute to impactful research and develop important academic skills, by providing the opportunity to develop expertise that they may not otherwise have gotten through traditional education.