A Department of Homeland Security Emeritus Center of Excellence led by the University of Maryland

A consortium of researchers dedicated to improving the understanding of the human causes and consequences of terrorism

Research project invites scientists and science fiction writers to explore the future in WMD threats


Research project invites scientists and science fiction writers to explore the future in WMD threats

March 31, 2020Erin Copland

If you have a scientific background, START researchers would like to invite you to participate in an online study exploring the future of weapons of mass destruction.

The Integrated Discovery of Emerging and Novel Technologies (IDENT) project, funded by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), focuses on identifying future technologies that state and non-state actors might adopt, which may disrupt or drastically change the countering weapons of mass destruction (CWMD) threat space.

The project team is looking for U.S. citizens with a background in the CWMD sphere, such as biology or chemistry, to participate in the study.

“We had a demo period for the project last year where we limited participation to scientists in specific fields, and the results were as expected,” Unconventional Weapons and Technology Director Steve Sin said. “Naturally, these subject matter experts knew about the upcoming technologies in their fields. But the technologies and threat scenarios discussed were all similar and familiar, so we didn’t find truly new and innovative emerging technologies.”

Sin said the purpose of the previous phase of the study was to test whether the system worked. The project team built a competitive, gamified system, in which participants could earn points for taking particular actions such as responding to a question, referring a friend or, ultimately, identifying a technology that the team assessed as relevant with a high likelihood of being adopted. The top point earners received prizes.

“There has been a lot of research about expert elicitations using these kind of models,” Sin said. “Game producers have figured out that you can keep people coming back by making them feel like they’re competing against each other, even though they may not be in reality.”

Now that the project team knows this system will work for an expert elicitation, it is inviting members of the public from various domains—government workers, academics, scientists and science fiction writers—to participate.

“We want to generate groundbreaking ideas about what the future of CWMD looks like,” Sin said. “We thought people like science fiction writers—whose job it is to think about the future—may shed some light on things that we don’t necessarily think about as scientists and security experts who are engaged in day-to-day operations.”

While the topics are often technical, the project team felt that science fiction writers would be a good fit, even if they do not have formal training in the topics being studied.

“Most science fiction writers tend to want to get their facts right, especially the ones who write stories that deal with the science and technology side of science fiction. A lot of them already have some background in science, or they have a personal interest in it, so they are extremely well-versed and motivated,” Sin said.

In addition to science fiction writers and professionals in the CWMD space, the project team is also welcoming students to participate.

Participants in the study are first given an onboarding form and a quiz that tests their expertise on CWMD topics, and then they are tasked with completing various actions. The top ten eligible participants at the end of the project period will receive prizes, which include things like a Surface Pro, an iPad, a computer and Bose headphones. The study also has a lottery in which anyone who has participated, no matter their final score, is eligible for winning a prize.

Sin said that the participants in the demo phase of the study last year were very impressed with how the study ran.

“The comments from past participants we received was that it was very interesting, and it was exciting to be a part of the program,” Sin said. “When we sent out the invitation for this iteration, the same folks who participated the last time wanted to do it again, which is a good sign.”

Individuals who are interested in participating in the study are encouraged to contact Salma Bouziani (bouziani@umd.edu) or Steve Sin (sinss@umd.edu).