Penn State, WUN launch International Center for the Study of Terrorism

May 25, 2006

London -- A unique research center dedicated to reducing the global threat of terrorism and minimizing its impact on society was launched May 25 by an international alliance of leading universities.

The International Center for the Study of Terrorism (ICST) brings together experts from both sides of the Atlantic and from other countries to investigate the root causes of this worldwide phenomenon, understand its long-term effects on society and identify new ways of safeguarding individuals, organizations and communities.

How do terrorist groups draw in and socialize new members? How can terrorists' confidence in their leaders be undermined? How can diffused terrorist networks be disrupted? How can the behavioral patterns and physical characteristics of suicide bombers be detected before they reach their target? Does the nature of the media's coverage of terrorism have an impact on radicalization? Clusters of researchers from the partner universities are seeking answers to such questions by drawing on a range of academic disciplines, including psychology, sociology, political science, anthropology, religious studies, criminology and mathematics.

The hub of the ICST is at Penn State University. Most of the other partners are members of the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN) -- a group of 16 universities in the UK, mainland Europe, the United States and China that pool their research strengths to address topics of major significance, from climate change to wireless communications.

The partners involved in the ICST will draw on WUN's expertise in brokering and supporting research links.

"Terrorism is not the preserve of any one ethnic, religious or political group; it crosses national borders and is a source of widespread fear," said Penn State President Graham B. Spanier. "Senior figures in the United States, the UK and elsewhere with a role in national security tell us there's a dimension of counter-terrorism activity that is seriously under-developed. It is the dimension that relates, for example, to how and why some people become radicalized and turn against their own or other people.

"The new center has much to contribute. Its academics are not bound by the preconceptions and assumptions of any one discipline, perspective or ideology," he added. "Its objective is new, scientifically validated knowledge, grounded in the best available data and the most rigorous methodologies."

Spanier, who also chairs the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board, added that there was scope for more dialogue between governments, academics and communities concerned with a variety of security threats.

"The International Center for the Study of Terrorism is devoted to turning knowledge into action," said Kevin Murphy, professor of psychology and director of the center. "Drawing on the land-grant tradition of the Pennsylvania State University, the center focuses on a dual mission of sponsoring and conducting cutting-edge research and turning that research into actionable knowledge that can help inform policy. Drawing on the talent and resources of an international consortium of universities, we follow a cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary model that aims to bring the best researchers together to further our understanding of terrorism, and use that knowledge to help reduce the threat of terrorism."

One of the ICST's first initiatives will be to bring together experts from around the world to assess how much is known about the psychology of terrorism and to define what needs to be done to raise the global level of awareness.

While the center's principal focus is on the behavioral and social sciences, it also will develop links with the physical sciences and engineering insofar as they contribute to understanding, preventing and responding to terrorism.

"One of our network's prime roles is to bring universities together to identify solutions to some of the most challenging and pressing issues," said Eric Thomas, chair of the WUN and vice chancellor of the University of Bristol. "Terrorism clearly falls into that category today, just as it has done for many years. We have created an opportunity for universities to put their intellectual capital to work in helping to create a safer world.

"Universities have expertise, independence, objectivity and an international outlook," he added. "That is why they can play a crucial role in addressing difficult, sensitive and highly charged issues such as this."

At Penn State, the departments of psychology, sociology and political science; the College of Information Sciences and Technology; and the Social Science Research Institute will be part of the center.

Murphy, the center's director, is an organizational psychologist whose research on personnel selection and placement, performance appraisal, and honesty in the workplace has earned him a national reputation. In the mid 1980s, he wrote a paper about the hazards of relying on polygraph tests for screening potential employees, at the time a fairly widespread practice. In the late 1990s, as a result of concerns raised by the use of polygraphs in the investigation of Wen Ho Lee, the Los Alamos scientist accused of spying, the National Academy of Sciences convened a panel to look closely at the scientific evidence on the polygraph, and Murphy was asked to serve.

In 2002, the U.S. Marine Corps sought Murphy's organization expertise to evaluate the Corps' recruiting process and offer recommendations to enhance it. While Murphy's work has focused on theories and techniques of performance and personnel selection, he and others have applied the research to national security, personnel operations in the military, and the organization of terrorist groups.

In 2003, thinking about ways to improve the quality of the science in the field of terrorism and counterterrorism, Murphy began putting together a team of psychologists, sociologists, political scientists, religion scholars and historians from Penn State and numerous other institutions, with the aim of creating a multidisciplinary center.

Murphy has served as the editor of Journal of Applied Psychology, and serves as a member of the editorial boards of Human Performance, Human Resource Management Review, Journal of Industrial Psychology, International Journal of Management Reviews and International Journal of Selection and Assessment.

"Kevin Murphy has spearheaded the development of a center that brings together perspectives from all the social sciences with the goal of using scientific knowledge to understand and to combat terrorism," said Susan Welch, dean of the College of the Liberal Arts at Penn State. "He has done an excellent job leveraging the strengths of Penn State as an institution, involving other great universities, and leading with a vision for what science can contribute in this matter of global importance."

Last month, in a report for the UK government, Professor Sir Gareth Roberts, president of Wolfson College, Oxford, cited WUN as the foremost example of how to create effective transatlantic research partnerships.

In addition to Penn State, institutions currently involved in the International Center for the Study of Terrorism include: Naval Postgraduate School, Stanford University, University of Pennsylvania, Saint Louis University, Drexel University, University of Pittsburgh, University of Kansas, Binghamton University, University of New Mexico, University of Bristol, University of Leeds, University of Southampton, Manchester University, the Institute for Counter-Terrorism and the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies; Nanjing University and Zhejiang University, People's Republic of China; Oslo and Bergen universities, Norway; and University of Utrecht, Netherlands

Dr. Murphy also discusses research goals in a Research Penn State online magazine article at: http://www.rps.psu.edu/inconversation/terror.html

For more information on the WUN, go to http://www.wun.ac.uk online.

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Approximately $145 million of the nearly $638 million in research that took place at Penn State in 2005-06 was funded by the U.S. Department of Defense. For more on how Penn State research helps keep the nation safe, visit the following links:

Applied Research Laboratory: http://www.arl.psu.edu/

Marine Corps Research University: http://www.mcru.psu.edu/

For more information on Penn State's leadership role in national security efforts through the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board, chaired by President Spanier, go to http://live.psu.edu/story/13530 online.

  • Penn State President Graham B. Spanier, right, and Penn State's Kevin Murphy, director of the new International Center for the Study of Terrorism, joined Eric Thomas, chair of the WUN, and David Pilsbury, chief executive of Worldwide Universities Network to announce the formation of the center.

    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 22, 2015