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SBE Science Nuggets NSF
BCS Responds to September 11th

Tragically, there are times when researchers must respond quickly to unanticipated events of horrific proportions. September 11th was just such an event, when fundamental perceptions, systems, structures and behaviors that had been taken for granted were suddenly thrown into question.

How will we cope with our shock and grief? Will we ever feel safe again? How can we better understand terrorism? How can we improve our readiness should another attack occur?

NSF's Small Grants for Exploratory Research (SGER) are custom-made for the kind of quick response required in situations of severe urgency when data must be collected quickly. Results from a number of SGER's awarded immediately following September 11th are already providing important insights into this crisis and its aftermath.

Coping: Americans React and Respond to September 11th

Social Psychology
The coping strategies people use in the immediate aftermath of a crisis can predict what their longer-term psychological outcome will be, according to a study by Roxane Cohen Silver, et al. of the University of California, Irvine. A national probability sample of approximately 900 adults completed an anonymous Web- based survey at 9-14 days, 2 months, and 6 months after the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Trauma-related symptoms, while declining by mid-March, are still present among a substantial number of individuals, even outside NYC. In addition, respondents continue to report a great deal of anxiety about future terrorist attacks personally affecting them or their loved ones. The early use of several specific coping strategies, including "giving up", predicts heightened distress over time. In addition, many people reported finding unexpected positive consequences in the wake of the attacks, such as closer relationships with family members and a greater appreciation of the freedoms our country offers its residents.

Human Cognition and Perception
Chances are good you know (or think you know) exactly what you were doing when you heard the news about September 11th. If so, you have experienced what psychologists refer to as "flashbulb memory" - the phenomenon of exceptional memory for salient events often associated with dates that mark tragic and history-altering events. Generally, people feel strongly that memories of such events are more vivid and more easily recalled than other memories. But are they? Past research has suggested they are not. Given the sudden opportunity to test afresh whether true flashbulb memories exist, Andrew Conway of the University of Illinois at Chicago instituted a nationally-representative survey via web-TV on September 14th, to ask people about their memories of September 11th, and their emotional reactions. The initial survey revealed that women tended to have stronger anxiety-related emotions than men, such as fear and vulnerability, while men had stronger anger-related emotions, such as hatred, outrage, and the desire to fight back. The same people will be contacted again one year and two years from the time of the initial survey and asked the same set of questions to assess their memory accuracy, memory confidence, and emotional reaction over time.

The Geographic Dimensions of Terrorism
One of geography's great strengths is its ability to synthesize information about places and processes. Responding to the multi-layered societal wreckage of September 11th, geographers and regional scientists have identified a substantial number of ways in which they can contribute to a deeper understanding of the causes, consequences, and responses to terrorism, thereby helping us better prepare for possible future events.

Geography and Regional Sciences
Working together under the auspices of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) and with support from NSF, researchers Douglas Richardson, Thomas Wilbanks, and Susan Cutter initiated a twofold research effort. The team addressed the immediate disaster situation by conducting a pilot study of the role and use of geographic information and technologies in emergency management and response to the WTC attacks. They also began the on-going process of helping develop a focused national research agenda on the geographical dimensions of terrorism. An extensive research agenda developed at a workshop convened for that purpose has been widely disseminated to national and international governmental agencies, the geographic research community, and to related disciplines. Key recommendations from the workshop include:

  • establish a national geospatial infrastructure as a foundation for homeland security
  • establish a Geography Division in the Office for Homeland Security
  • strengthen linkages between international geographic scholars
  • establish a quick-response program that enables researchers to get into the field quickly after a major world event

Also see:
The Association of American Geographers

Worry over future attacks does not affect whether or when homeowners might move, but it significantly affects where they might move to according to initial analysis of a post-September 11 survey of 2,000 randomly-chosen homeowners in Franklin County, Ohio. Those households surveyed that had stronger concerns over a possible terrorist attack were significantly less likely to want to move to a downtown residential location, and they were much more likely to want to move to a rural area. Because the investigators had conducted a similar survey prior to September 11, they were able to discern that homeowners who were surveyed after September 11 generally were happier with their current situations and were more cautious about a potential move than the pre-September 11 survey group. Through their use of a SGER award to conduct a new survey, researchers Hazel Morrow-Jones and Elena Irwin of Ohio State University took advantage of a unique opportunity to compare homeowner attitudes before and after the tragic events of September 11, thereby examining the effect of the attacks on household attitudes towards their home, neighborhood, the likelihood of moving, and preferences of location.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the transformation of Russian political culture into a democratic system has lent new importance to the opinions of Russian citizens. This fact, juxtaposed with the dramatic shifts in Russian governmental policy created by the September 11 terrorist attacks, has provided a unique opportunity for researchers to assess the degree to which the new policies and actions of the Putin administration coincide with the attitudes of the Russian people. John O'Loughlin, University of Colorado at Boulder, and Gerard Toal, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, are conducting a nationwide survey consisting of face-to-face interviews in the homes of 1,800 Russian citizens to further our understanding of the evolving Russian political culture, and provide new insights for the making of foreign policy.

For more information on September 11th research:

List of SBE/SGER Awards Related to Terrorism

SES Responds to September 11th

Small Grants for Exploratory Research (SGER)

OLPA - Special Edition - The Effects of 9/11: Preliminary Studies

How will we cope?

Results from a number of
NSF's Small Grants for
Exploratory Research
awarded immediately
following September 11th
are already providing
important insights
into the crisis
and its aftermath.

graphic of 80%

According to a nationally representative NSF survey on September 14th, 80% of respondents in the Eastern time-zone were aware of the attacks within one hour.

graphic of 'flashbulb memory'

The phenomenon of
exceptional memory for
salient events often
associated with dates
that mark tragic and
history-altering events
is called
"flashbulb memory".


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