Defense-related researchers, like many researchers, tend to focus narrowly on specific topics — and the world needs that, says Dr. Michelle Black, assistant professor of political science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO).
As researchers rigorously target every thought and action, she explained, there may be little thought for the big-picture needs of national security.
On the other hand, Dr. Black said, military operators sometimes find it challenging to see how disciplined, narrowly targeted research fits into national security.
"They both have things to contribute, and the contradiction is okay,” Dr. Black said. “It’s a unique relationship that often gets severed here and there, and I can help keep that communication alive and help each entity understand the other's perspective. Academics have so much to offer — systematically and methodologically — and defense can really use that."
Dr. Black should know. Before she came to UNO as a researcher and professor, she worked in psychological operations for the U.S. Army (Airborne), then as a defense contractor and government civilian for the U.S. Department of Defense.
During her time at U.S. Strategic Command, where she specialized in deterrence analysis and adversary decision-making, Dr. Black launched a new program called the Assurance Academic Alliance, recruiting 35 academic institutions to participate.
Now she is the academic, but with a uniquely valuable ability to empathize with defense clients.
"I’ve been in their spot, and it helps me understand what they need,” she said. “I saw some of the gaps and research that needed to be done, and now I’m happy to say I’m doing some of that research."
For example, Dr. Black has supported NATO’s Allied Command Transformation concept development by finding ways to enable coherent deterrence and support alliance decision-making and adaptation to new and emerging security challenges.
With a team of nine undergraduate and graduate students from various backgrounds and degrees, she developed a deterrence methodology that can adapt to future challenges within a complex international system. The interdisciplinary nature of political science is conducive to the multipronged perspective needed to understand today’s multi-adversarial defense deterrence scene, Dr. Black said.
"We ask 'How does it work, and why does it work that way?' It’s decision analysis," she explained. "We try to forecast how leaders make certain decisions, and that’s an important piece of the puzzle globally and economically — security as it relates to the environment is even nested within political science!"
The goal is to bring varied information together as levers to understand multi-adversary global actors and potentially mitigate harmful actions. Going forward, Dr. Black said, this is a discipline needed on multiple stages, from the artic, where there are new places to explore and exploit as glaciers melt, to outer space and cyber arenas, both disciplines in which the University of Nebraska is building expertise.
"We learned from each other in a way that helped the projects soar." she said. "It had never been done before, and we needed all the creativity we could get."
She is now expanding on this work through independent research and development funding from the National Strategic Research Institute (NSRI) at the University of Nebraska.
Dr. Black is also a researcher and director of workforce development for the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education (NCITE) Center based at UNO. This is a federally-funded, cross-discipline academic hub supporting the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). She is on her second year of leading a research project for DHS through NCITE investigating counterterrorism and intelligence training and education challenges across the intelligence community.
An NSRI Fellow and NSRI IRAD 2021 recipient, Dr. Black understands the benefits of the institute for researchers, defense customers and the country. Topping her list is the opportunity to continue her service to the nation, she said.
Dr. Damon Colletta, a colleague of Dr. Black’s at the Eisenhower Center for Space and Defense Studies, applauds, among many other achievements, Dr. Black’s contributions to the field as a co-editor of the Space & Defense journal.
"Michelle's contribution to building a vibrant intellectual community around the journal has been spectacular," Dr. Colletta said. "She has enriched ties joining UNO and NSRI with the military service academies, building extraordinary educational opportunities for cadets and including undergraduates nationwide."
It’s all a lot to take in for friends and family who ask Dr. Black about her work. She usually simply tells them she is a university researcher and professor. When they ask what she researches, she says war and conflict and terrorism.
"Then, if they ask why I research this, I tell them because these are negative things, and I want to find out more about them, so I can communicate ways to help prevent them or limit their effect," she said. "We don’t like war, and we want to prevent it. I’m trying to prevent conflict in a way that helps humanity."
When her eight-year-old son asks what she does, she simply says, "I’m a scientist!" As he grows up, he’ll no doubt learn just how unique her "science" is and how layered her roles are in the dual world of polysci and defense.
About the National Strategic Research Institute
Through the National Strategic Research Institute at the University of Nebraska leading scientists deliver innovative national security research, technology, product and strategy development, training and exercises, and subject matter expertise to the Department of Defense and other federal agencies. One of only 14 DOD-designated University Affiliated Research Centers in the country, NSRI is sponsored by U.S. Strategic Command and works to ensure the United States’ safety and preparedness against increasingly sophisticated threats. Read about our mission.