First wave of new projects for CREST

Ella Rhodes reports.

Ten projects to address some of the security threats facing the UK have been announced by the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST), which is led by Lancaster University. The call, offering £1.25 million, was the first round of commissioning by CREST for programmes of syntheses and original research for understanding, mitigating and countering threats to national and international security.

CREST has been funded for three years with £4.35 million from the UK security and intelligence agencies and a further £2.2 million invested by the founding institutions. We spoke to researchers leading two of these projects, which were chosen from 136 applications.

Professor Par Anders Granhag and Karl Ask (University of Gothenburg) have been given funding to evaluate the role of ostracism based on his previous research into the Scharff technique of interrogation. Hanns Scharff was an interrogator who worked during World War II at the Luftwaffe’s Intelligence and Evaluation Centre, where he interrogated more than 500 American and British fighter pilots.

However Scharff took an ‘uncommonly affable’ approach to his subjects and has been described as having ‘almost psychic’ powers in his ability to casually obtain information from his prisoners during normal conversations. In this research Granhag and his team will empirically address whether a brief episode of social rejection just before an interview increases individuals’ willingness to share information with the interviewer.

Granhag explained: ‘Even minimal signs of social exclusion have a large influence on human behaviour because ostracism threatens four very fundamental human needs – belonging, self-esteem, control, and recognition/meaningful existence. When this happens, an individual will feel, think and act in ways to mitigate that threat. One way they can do that is by acting to restore belonging and self-esteem, and this is what we will examine in our experiments. If this approach is empirically supported, then it will be reasonably easy to implement in intelligence-gathering settings.’

Dr Paul Gill who works within UCL’s Department of Security and Crime Sciences is looking into terrorists’ decision making in terms of security and risk, a project that will involve three main strands. He and his team will carry out a systematic review of criminological literature concerning factors that emerge when a criminal is thinking about committing a crime at a certain place and a certain time.

Gill explained he would collate and review the existing evidence and apply those insights to two unique datasets for the second and third parts of the project. One of these datasets outlines thousands of threats that have been made to the royal family and other high-profile individuals. The second dataset is a collection of terrorist autobiographies.

He added: ‘We want to turn qualitative information into a quantitative dataset to get an understanding of how these individuals, in their own words, made decisions regarding risk and whether and how to conduct terrorist attacks. This work will improve the amount of literature on this subject that’s out there. It should be interesting to people tasked with the disruption, detection and investigation of extremist behaviour, policing security and intelligence agencies in particular.’   CREST Director Professor Paul Taylor (Lancaster University) said the standard of applications they received was excellent; not all of these involved psychology, and ranged from art projects to computing proposals. Taylor, who chaired the panel that reviewed these applications, commented: ‘It was a privilege to read these proposals, and I am very grateful to the research community for being so supportive of the selection process. We had 428 reviews completed within a three-week period.’

The 10 projects will start between now and September 2016. Taylor added that there will be CREST calls to come: ‘We will be doing other calls towards the end of this year, but these will be around more specific topics which have been identified as important. There’s over 100 full- and part-time staff working on CREST now, and they include a number of UK-based psychologists. It demonstrates the quality of UK psychology in the forensic area, we know it’s world-leading but it’s nice to see it on paper.’ 

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