Why the Army Corps of Engineers matches engineering with behavioral science

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The federal government has world class engineering expertise in its ranks. The same is true of public health expertise. What it does not have is a standing capability to fuse those two disciplines together with behavioral science to help inform agency’s response to crises, at least until now. A brand new organization called the Engineering for Public Health and Human Factors Center, or EPH, is now up and running within the Army Corps of Engineers. Research social scientist Dr. Benjamin Trump spoke about this with Federal News Network’s Jared Serbu on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Jared Serbu: Ben, thanks for joining us. And I think before we talk about the center and what you hope to do with this new institution, can you get us started by talking about the corps’ experience during the COVID response? And what kind of informed the need that you see here? What were the gaps that that response identified?

Benjamin Trump: So from March 2020, until March of ’22, I served in a team of individuals from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Engineer Research and Development Center, that assisted FEMA, particularly in region one, as well as HHS ASPR to perform a lot of data analytic functions relative to COVID. You have a lot of dedicated emergency responders and a lot of capacity to engage in that work. But an emerging need was the ability to integrate vast quantities of data, categorize them, interpret them and communicate them very quickly, often in a matter of minutes to hours rather than days to weeks. The U.S. government has quite a bit of capacity in doing public health, health outreach, and health analytics from a variety of agencies. And we also at the federal level, have fantastic engineering capacity. The linking of the two of these topics is where a gap has emerged, and how engineering and engineering infrastructure informs public health and medical-related challenges. So for example, like if we were to build a field hospital, or a mass vaccination center or address supply chain challenges related to health-related assets. These analytic capacities one, required an awful lot of physical, social and mathematical sciences. But also are foundationally from the emergency response field. It requires us to think about everything from civil engineering on one end down to health literacy and health communication of displaced, vulnerable and underserved populations, among many others. What we have tried to do through the Center for Engineering for Public Health and Human Factors, or EPH, is to bridge that gap to make sure that engineering and infrastructure-related challenges have a clear research and development space towards helping with different health risk assessment, health resilience and health-based emergency response activities.

Jared Serbu: So as a practical matter, what is the EPH center going to do all day every day, especially in a steady state kind of environment where you’re not dealing with multiple disasters all at once?

Benjamin Trump: Right, there’s a variety of different functions that we’re trying to perform. So from a blue sky perspective, there are non-emergency functions that require an EPH-related mindset. Like when you’re developing new workspace or new infrastructure management opportunities, or if we are trying to develop in preparation for disaster: trailers, or ships or other capabilities to house first responders and those that have been displaced. We’re developing models and analytical tools that are going to be able to be taken off the shelf and used, either in a blue sky environment like if we are following a typical Gantt chart and building a new facility to make sure that the way that it is built doesn’t have any unforeseen or downstream risks or infrastructural risks among different emergency preparedness options, as well as infrastructure evaluation tools. One of the core tasks that we have in the near future for the next three to six months, is to go back through over two years, 735 days, of service that we gave through the COVID effort and begin to memorialize a lot of that work, And many who are writing several publications, or have recently published several publications or several journals, on everything related to micro exposure analysis. This would be how a human pathogen spreads through our workforce. What we do is we take every single room within a blueprint, all of your entryways, your bathrooms, and cafeterias and hallways, all elevators and stairwells. And of course, the main places of work and your parking lots. We merge that into separate analyses related to how you get to work. Do you take a metro or T or subway, you take your own car, do you take rideshare as well as where you live and the household size that you have, and we can actually anticipate the cumulative burden of incidents in the workforce. Now, our initial model was targeted at COVID to help guide those agencies that had to be back in the office safely, quickly. We were able to develop something that was risk-based for that, but it can be attuned to other conditions, really any human pathogen. So hopefully reduce the spread of infectious disease in the workforce. This is one of the challenges that we’ve seen is without this kind of modeling, it’s hard to figure out. What are some of the simple and cost effective changes that workforce managers and facility operators might take to reduce the spread of disease without influencing or reducing mission effectiveness. So micro exposure is one of many tools that we’re currently working on to develop beyond the context of COVID, both for emergency response and blue sky operations, as well as for CONUS, continental United States and OCONUS missions, such as the meeting that I’m currently at in Barbados related to climate resilience and disaster response for severe weather.

Jared Serbu: Super interesting. So since you’re operating, as you said, it’s sort of at the intersection of several different disciplines, one would think you need an interdisciplinary team there at the new center. Is that mostly going to be organic hiring on your part, building your own team? Are you going to borrow experts from other agencies? What’s the vision there?

Benjamin Trump: So through our COVID experience, and through my prior work with Dr. Igor Linkov, you say USACE ERDC, we have developed an organically grown team of engineers and social scientists, ethicists and physicists, among many computer scientists. Everything you can think of. We have developed that over time, but I am currently acquiring funded reimbursable projects from different agencies and beyond hopefully also from the private sector that will require further development and further hiring to build up the center’s capacity. We’re also partnering with a number of universities through different projects, specific agreements, that will expand our bench to bring in some world experts more specific on individual project topics. So it’s a mixture of both, you know, we are continuing to grow and bring people from our existing team, feds and contractors, but we at the same time, are always looking to grow our folks that want to solve very difficult and interdisciplinary scientific questions related to public health within the infrastructure context. Or are just very interested in working in something that is certainly hectic and fast-paced with emergency response, but can help guide the risk evaluation and decision making process for senior leaders in the United States and beyond.

Jared Serbu: Yeah, and so what are you doing to advertise this new capability to other agencies? And were you finding kind of the biggest pockets of interest? Is there a way to characterize that so far?

Benjamin Trump: Absolutely. I mean, the big letdown with something like this, it’s a lot of personal networking word of mouth. I have faced with a number, I think, pretty much government department and many of the agencies within them over the past two and a half years for COVID-related work. So we’ve been pulling from a lot of that. But we’ve also been working with a number of learned societies, like the Society for Risk Analysis, and AAAS, as well as some of the broader networks that we have within U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Army. So from that, what we have all kinds of high tech that can guide decision making and quantify risks and communicate the social downstream implications of risks, we’re still relying on tried and true methods. Reaching out to folks that we already know and had met at different meetings, but I’m always open to meeting or speaking with anybody at any time for any reason, related to EPH. EPH is in improvement mode for the next three to five years in partnership with USAIS, and other agencies, Department of Homeland Security, and FEMA, HHS and any others that we can attract continued interest from a prior work with COVID. The hope is that we can demonstrate value be able to not just only defend, but improve the mission response for blue sky operations and emergency response and then become a dependable partner in this way. It is a new way of doing business. We are science-driven, we are a reimbursable science organization, so ultimately, my duty is to serve and support others. But in doing this, it is a change in the business model. And so the hope is that as we gain success, more publications, more emergency response across different mediums around the world, that this can be something that can be a reliable resource and gets more permanent, or at least long-term support from different actors.

Jared Serbu: Yeah, and I guess I’ll just follow up on that a little bit. And I don’t know how possible it is to answer this question yet. Since you don’t know what you don’t know. But But have you given any thought to if a capability like EPH had existed, you know, in its fullness and had proven itself out by the time the COVID response was starting? How might the national response have been able to be improved, look different? That question makes sense?

Benjamin Trump: Absolutely. It does. So, you know, you have to start with a caveat that when SARS COVID2 initially reached you know, it departed Hubei province, Wuhan, moved into the United States there was a lot we didn’t know. The hazard wasn’t characterized, the exposure pathways were uncertain, and even who was at particular risk was unknown. Even with that you can take very limited amounts of data. And as a disaster is unfolding, improved EPH analytics rather than taking an ad hoc approach towards allocating resources and prioritizing labor. This can help you get in front of the risk, maybe not with a precise number, but it can help you prioritize where do we spend our very scarce labor even if funding is not an issue which states or counties or census districts or workforce departments or folks deployed around the world? Where is the risk the greatest where’s the greatest potential for truly catastrophic risk outcomes as well as if these events do occur? What are some of the conditions that need to be monitored relative to this, one of the things that we developed quite quickly was the ability to evaluate different supply chain challenges related to United States vaccine development. And then subsequently, we’re able to demonstrate how this capability can be applied to pretty much any consumer products imported into the United States. Tools like this, again, you’re always working with prospective and assimilating systems with incomplete data, but it can give you multiple legs up to getting in front of that problem early so you can at least marshal your resources and get your mission moving in the right direction.

Tom Temin: Dr. Benjamin Trump, research social scientist at the Army Engineer Research and Development Center and the leader of the new Engineering for Public Health and Human Factors Center. Speaking with Federal News Network’s Jared Serbu.

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