Looking forward, and back from 9/11

September 6, 2002

As September 11 approaches, THES writers look at research in the US and UK in the wake of the attacks and US academia's fight to present a balanced view.

A year is too short a time for most scholars to assess anything thoroughly, let alone the traumatic events of September 11 2001. Nevertheless, you would expect that an event routinely described as "world-changing" would have some impact on UK academics. Indeed, several programmes have been launched as a result of the terrorist attacks. However, although it is natural for the impact to be felt more powerfully in the US, where it has spawned a wide range of research programmes, a comparison with the UK is illuminating. When The THES questioned different research organisations about what research ideas had been put forward since September 11, the response in some cases was laughter, a response that seemed all the more remarkable given dire newspaper warnings about Britain's unpreparedness for the kind of attack that September 11 forced people to contemplate seriously for the first time.

In terms of scientific engineering, September 11 seems to have prompted much re-evaluation of existing research rather than specifically new research. Construction engineering has been particularly affected - the BA Festival of Science is holding a special debate on the implications for research, for example. Government departments are also reassessing research priorities, placing issues such as nuclear and radiological threats, bioterrorism and protecting food and water supplies higher up the agenda. In January, a new integrated agency, the Health Protection Agency, was announced, although it had been planned since before September 11. The agency will oversee research into infectious disease control and protection against chemical and radiological hazards. It will merge together the Public Health Laboratory Service, the National Radiological Protection Board, the Centre for Applied Microbiology and Research and the National Focus for Chemical Incidents.

Another area where one would perhaps expect a lot of reaction after the al-Qaeda attacks is in terrorism studies. Yet, according to Lawrence Freedman, head of social science and public perception at King's College London, research into the causes of terrorism is still underdeveloped. "People argue that it's poverty and despair that drives terrorism, whereas in fact it was well-educated characters from Saudi Arabia who brought about September 11, rather than poor people. It's assumed that there are close links between poverty and distress and terrorism, but the links are much more complex and less obvious than that, and I think there's a lot more work that needs to be done." Nevertheless, Karin von Hippel, a senior research fellow at King's, is investigating potential support for terrorism in Somalia, where some experts predict that al-Qaeda will regroup.

Despite Freedman's concerns, however, social science is one area where some interesting work has been sparked as a result of last year's attacks. With £250,000 backing from the Economic and Social Research Council, the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St Andrew's University and Southampton University's Mountbatten Centre for International Studies will look at the management of terrorist attacks before, during and after they happen. Researchers will question the intelligence and police services and look at political prevention, including attempts to solve conflicts that might promote terrorism. The study will also try to predict potential targets and weapons.

Southampton already has expertise in cyber-terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction. It will look at the preparedness of local authorities, health and emergency services and private security firms to deal with a terrorist attack. "We're asking what needs to be done, what needs to be changed," says Paul Wilkinson, director of the St Andrew's centre. He hopes that, in two years, they will have an accurate picture of the way measures taken to deal with terrorism have changed in the light of September 11 and some useful suggestions as to how to improve them.

Another ESRC-backed project is on public response to terrorist attacks and public perception of risk. Researchers at Leeds University's Institute of Communication Studies, Kent University's School of Social Policy and King's College London will look at how the risk of terrorism is communicated and understood. "Plenty of examples exist of government appearing to lose control, and when communication goes wrong this can drive public concerns rather than assuage them," Freedman says.

Other social sciences research includes a two-year study by Michael Dillon, professor of politics at Lancaster University, of how organisations such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation can sift information more intelligently to improve their predictive potential. This follows revelations that FBI agents unknowingly held information that could have prevented the September 11 attacks. In particular, Dillon plans to look at whether bioinformatic systems, the information-sifting mechanism used by the Human Genome Project and internet search engines, can be exploited. "Security may be less a way of looking for information that we haven't got than finding ways of getting through the information we already have to find what we need," he says.

In the humanities, the main research to emerge as a result of September 11 has been related to subjects such as popular culture and the media. However, subjects such as history and Renaissance studies have thrown up interesting research material. Richard Crockatt, reader in American history at the University of East Anglia, has been researching September 11 through different historical perspectives, from the context of American foreign policy, relations between America and the Middle East and international politics. His book, America Embattled: September 11, Anti-Americanism and Global Order , part-funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Board, will be published in November. He agrees that "there is a lot of inertia built into research" in the UK, particularly in areas such as history, but adds that "history is vital to viewing the events of September 11". "If you are looking at American reaction to September 11, an understanding of history - not just of Pearl Harbor but going right back to the (American) revolution - is valuable in showing that reaction to September 11 is of a piece with past experience."

Jerry Brotton, lecturer in Renaissance studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, is organising a conference in December on "Cultural Encounters between East and West 1453-1699". He believes it will show how in the 15th and 16th centuries there was a period when people from East and West were far more tolerant and open to ideas from each other than they have been in recent years. Even before last year's attacks, historians of Renaissance and early modern periods were beginning to rethink interactions between East and West, he says, becoming more aware of the amount of exchange taking place. He believes scholars from different backgrounds should work more closely together so that those speaking Latin, Arabic, Turkish and Hebrew can share their knowledge and so that archives in different countries can be researched from the angle of East-West relations.

Ananya Kabir, a research fellow at the Centre for History and Economics at Cambridge, who organised a similar conference this summer on Orientalism before 1600, says different disciplines need to work together. She believes September 11 validated and gave added impetus to existing research trends looking at early East-West interactions rather than sparking new ones. "People started emailing each other to say we need to do something with our research," she says. "We need to intervene in how people think about civilisations." Medievalists can be vital, for example, in giving the context of such an incendiary term as "crusade", which has already got President George W. Bush into trouble.

According to Brotton, many of the older UK researchers find it difficult to deal with the implications of September 11 because they are still set in a cold-war mindset. He was struck, for instance, by how many academics taking part in the December conference have avoided addressing questions raised by the attacks. "I am 33, and one of my problems with what is going on is that that '68 generation cannot deal with what 9/11 represents," he says. "They don't understand what it means because there has been a cultural shift. The left liberal response has been focused on the cold war, on a cultural tradition that comes from the West and assumes that Islam is backward."

However, he acknowledges that UK researchers are fortunate in having more "oxygen" to do their research in comparison with the US, where "hawkish" attitudes pervade discussion.

Yet the sheer quantity of research generated by September 11 in the US and its relevance to policy discussion dwarfs that in the UK. Programmes include the 2001 Oral History Narrative and Memory Project, launched by Columbia University, which already has more than 400 oral-history interviews, collections of essays assessing the cultural and media impact of the attacks, and a study by the American Academy for the Advancement of Science on research roles in the light of the attacks. While the shockwaves of September 11 have been felt most forcefully in the US, for some the problem is also indicative of the research environment in the UK - bureaucratic, poorly funded and inflexible. For others, it is part of an academic tradition of taking a more objective, longer-term look at problems. What is certain is that, as in the world of international relations, the events of September 11 will reverberate across the research world for some time to come.

Other THES "Aftermath of 9/11" stories

Liberal minds not welcome

Students clamour for courses

What if nothing at all has changed?

Tragedy grapples with gap between human meaningfulness and despair

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