A better understanding of human behaviour

nsf understanding human behaviour, NSF crime
© Kirill Savenko

The NSF Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences in the U.S. promotes a better understanding of the forces that shape human behaviour and social organisations from birth to old age

The Social, Behavioral and Economic (SBE) directorate of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the U.S. supports research that cuts across the human experience, examining the effects of social, economic, political, cultural and environment forces that affect people’s lives – and how people in turn shape those forces.

Through its various core disciplinary and interdisciplinary programmes, along with contributions to cross-directorate NSF investments, SBE supports around 5,000 scientists, educators and students every year.

The directorate comprises four divisions: Behavioural and Cognitive Sciences; Social and Economic Sciences; the Office of Multidisciplinary Activities and the National Centre for Science and Engineering Statistics.

The first two divisions cover an array of disciplines, from archaeology, cognitive neuroscience and linguistics to economics, political science and decision, risk and management sciences. (1)

Meanwhile, the Office of Multidisciplinary Activities covers research experiences for undergraduates and SBE postdoctoral research fellowships.

The National Centre for Science and Engineering Statistics is the leading source of data on the U.S. Science and Engineering Enterprise, including statistics on the workforce, educational pathways, R&D funding and performance, and innovation and outcomes.

As the SBE states: “Understanding human behaviour individually and in groups has far-reaching impacts, from optimising child development to safeguarding our troops; from exploring the origins of our species to finding our way with GPS; from understanding the state of science and engineering enterprise to securing cyberspace.” (2)

Insights into crime and justice

In September 2020, the NSF signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the research, development and evaluation agency of the U.S. Department of Justice.

The agreement, which extends formal collaboration between the agencies through to 2025, will support the translation of cutting-edge science and technology to improve public safety and the administration of justice. The latest MOU follows a similar agreement from 2012.

The new MOU defines a framework for interagency collaboration to evaluate and support activities relevant to criminal justice in the U.S. and to promote fiscal efficiency by preventing duplicate efforts.

The NSF and NIJ aim to:

  • Foster interagency activities and the exchange of ideas.
  • Identify cutting-edge areas of research.
  • Co-fund proposals.
  • Support education experiences.

SBE will be the primary NSF directorate participating in the MOU but other NSF directorates will be encouraged to collaborate with the NIJ.

Arthur Lupia, Assistant Director of NSF’s Directorate for Social, Behavioural and Economic Sciences, said: “As they have in the past, NIJ and NSF continue to make lives better through advancing fundamental research that provides critical insights into crime and justice.”

A history of collaboration

The NSF and NIJ have worked together since 2012 on workshops, events and research programmes through interagency agreements and Dear Colleague Letters.

In one such letter in 2014, the NSF and NIJ cosponsored a call for proposals to establish a cooperative research centre for forensic science. The resulting Centre for Advanced Research in Forensic Science (CARFS) brings together industrial partners and academic researchers to develop, implement and commercialise tools to advance the field in the U.S.

Since its founding, CARFS has founded more than 40 research projects at five universities. The renewed MOU aims to further accelerate research from ideation to commercial use.

The NSF and NIJ also cosponsored a Northwestern University project that saw researchers investigate how DNA examiners’ decisions to test forensic evidence could be influenced by non-forensic contextual clues, such as comments made by investigators, and how mock jurors’ judgements and decisions are affected by DNA examiners’ arguments.

Rebecca Ferrell, Programme Director for the NSF’s Biological Anthropology Programme and CARFS Programme Officer, said: “Although the missions of the NIJ and NSF differ, we continue to identify societally important research in forensic science and criminal justice that can be advanced by leveraging the strengths of both agencies.”

Lucas Zarwell, Director of NIJ’s Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences, added: “Through this relationship, NIJ and NSF can improve efforts at both agencies to inform the future of forensics.

“This MOU is a great example of how NIJ can coordinate with other federal agencies to produce research that impacts the criminal justice community.” (3)


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