Studying social, behavioral effects of a nuclear attack

How people would react in the immediately and in moments, the days and weeks following a nuclear attack is the subject of research at George Mason University’s Center for Social Complexity.

The U.S. government’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency awarded the $462,094 grant for the project, “A Framework for Modeling the Population’s Response to a Nuclear WMD Event,” to researchers at the center, a division of the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study.

The physical effects of a nuclear event have been well studied, but the social and behavioral effects are not well understood, Mason researchers said.

Computational social science, particularly agent-based modeling, will be used to investigate and develop a deeper understanding of fundamental aspects of the response of individuals and their social networks to a nuclear event.

“Our intent is to model the effects of a nuclear weapon of mass destruction (WMD) hitting a megacity; we picked New York,” said William G. Kennedy, principal investigator for the project.

The project’s primary focus is the short term—hours to the first 30 days—reaction to a nuclear attack, but not the recovery period.

The results will be a source of information for the rest of the government oncharacterization how things would work if such an event happened.

“This project is at the convergence of natural science and, social science and engineering science,” said Claudio Cioffi-Revilla, the founder and director of the Center of Social Complexity.

During the three-year grant, Mason researchers are using a computer model to represent the information they collect and developed.

“We don’t get to experiment with a lot of social science areas.” Kennedy said. “You can take basic theories, implement them at the individual level in a model and then make those in the model computable and see how they collectively play out.”

They also have the resources to study catastrophic disasters that have already happened like the Sept. 11 terrorist attack and the 2011 Fukushima, Japan, nuclear disaster.

“We can get different aspects of a nuclear WMD catastrophe from different historical events and stitch them together,” Kennedy said.