USC research center receives a $1 million grant from the Department of Defense

Laptop screen open to the Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events website.
The $1 million grant from the United States Department of Defense will be used to study terrorism in post-conflict zones. (Vincent Leo | Daily Trojan)

Following 9/11, researchers at USC realized that there was a lack of resources devoted to the study of terrorism, so professors were recruited to form an independent research group at the university to address the issue of terrorism. However, as more people got involved, the topics of research at the program expanded to include other problems as well, such as natural disasters and technological accidents. 

Now, the independent research center, dedicated to studying terrorism across various disciplines including economics  and engineering, received a $1 million grant from the United States Department of Defense to conduct a study on terrorism in post-conflict zones early this February. 

The purpose of the grant, also known as the Minerva Grant, is to fund abstract analyses that do not have immediate policy applications but can be used to inform future decision-making processes by the government. 

According to CREATE Director Adam Rose, who is also the lead principal investigator on the Minerva Grant Project, much of the infrastructure in post conflict zones, such as Iraq or Afghanistan, has been damaged from conflict in the area. To rebuild, countries need to have reliable transportation systems to allow for movement of people and goods, which CREATE plans to research through the Minerva Research Initiative. 

“What our thinking is, is for these failed states to get back on their feet, they need to have a viable and sustainable transportation logistics system to move goods and people in a lot of these places,” Rose said. “We hope to develop a strong conceptual model that will help us analyze these situations and help us evaluate them.”

To qualify for the grant, Rose put together a research team composed of leaders in their fields from major universities — including USC, Cornell University, Pennsylvania State University, University of Wisconsin and George Mason University — to draft a proposal focused on a plan to examine regions as a whole with an emphasis on logistic systems and spatial dimension in particular. 

CREATE’s status as an independent research group was also important to ensure the project would contain objective, non-ideological information that can be used for future decision making, Rose said.

According to Rose, the Department of Defense hopes this grant will result in research that can ultimately be used to stabilize post-conflict zones by reducing violence and thus lessening breeding grounds for terrorist organizations. 

Since its founding, CREATE has also expanded to include the study of a wide variety of societal issues beyond terrorism, ranging from natural disasters to technological accidents such as nuclear power and collapsed infrastructure. 

In general, CREATE assesses the probability that an attack or threat will occur and uses this information in an attempt to counter them upfront to lessen the likelihood that they will occur and the potential harm they will cause, specifically to property and business operations, Rose said. They do so by researching terrorist motivations, targeting investments in conflict zones, and studying the economic impacts of terrorism. 

“We can’t protect against every threat. Some are going to get through,”Rose said. “[The question is] how do we bounce back efficiently and rapidly.” 

In order to carry out these studies, CREATE often receives funding from a variety of institutions, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Science Foundation and the World Bank, each of which have incredible stakes in CREATE’s research due to the ways such disasters impact the economy in their aftermath.

The interdisciplinary nature of CREATE is one of its most significant features said Richard John, a psychology professor at the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the associate director for research at CREATE

“It [became] apparent pretty quickly that terrorism was more than just a policy problem or an engineering problem. It was also a people problem,” said John. “You couldn’t leave out behavioral science from the equation. You had to account for how people react to extreme events.” 

One behavioral study done by CREATE involved the public reaction to the Orlando nightclub shooting on June 12, 2016. In the study, researchers used standard text dictionaries to classify whether tweets related to the shooting exhibited anger or fear while simultaneously using a geospatial identifier to code where the tweet came from and the distance from Orlando.

“We found that anger was actually quite a bit greater the further you were away from Orlando, and we found that fear dissipated quite rapidly near Orlando but less rapidly at places further from Orlando,” John said. 

These studies are often done with the help of both USC professors and graduate students said Rose.  Juan Machado, a recent graduate from the Price School of Public Policy, was one of these researchers. 

Machado first became involved with CREATE while taking a class with Rose, who asked if Machado would join the research team. Since then, they have worked together on a project to estimate the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the United States economy — specifically the effects of shutdowns and stimulus bills on GDP. 

Despite finding a job immediately after graduation last May, Machado decided to stay involved with the center to participate in their study of the economic impacts of the coronavirus, a study which was also funded by the federal government. 

“[At] the center, a lot of our work revolves around cost-benefit analysis and a method called computer general equilibrium models, which are used to estimate the economic impact of different policies,” Machado said. “At Price, it was great to learn about these things in the classroom, but having the first hand experience of how it is applied and putting it together and how it is used by policymakers has been very valuable, it gave me a direct experience.” 

According to Machado, it is projects like these that are what make CREATE an important resource and ultimately encouraged him to continue his research.

“I felt this was of great importance to the public interest, so I wanted to stay involved with the Center,” Machado said. “The field of developmental economics is super important, but I think the contributions of infrastructure development are well researched but not so much in post-conflict zones, so I think this project will be a very important contribution to the literature on the subject.”