Host John Verrico is joined by Richard “Rik” Legault, PhD, who serves as Senior Advisor for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences for S&T’s Social Sciences Technology Center (SS-TC). Discover all that SS-TC does to support programs and inform policies across S&T by conducting assessments, analyzing risk, evaluating success, and more. Rik helps recontextualize the Department of Homeland Security mission in terms of how it relates to people, in addition to tech (you could say we’re Humanly Speaking in this episode), by using various relatable real-life examples. His unique perspective will change the way you think about national security and foster a greater appreciation for just how multifaceted S&T is.
- Social Sciences Technology Center
- The Dwight D. Eisenhower speech Rik references is the famous "Atoms for Peace" Speech delivered to the United Nations in 1953
- The Jurassic Park quote John references is by Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should
- Recorded on: July 25, 2022
Guest: Rik Legault, Ph.D., Senior Advisor, Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences
Host: John Verrico, Chief of Media & Community Relations
[00:00:00] Verrico: Hi, I'm John Verrico and I work for the Department of Homeland Security, Science and Technology Directorate, or S&T as we call it. Join me and meet the science and technology experts on the front lines, keeping America safe. This is Technologically Speaking.
[00:00:20] Verrico: Hello, and welcome to this edition of Technologically Speaking. I'm John Verrico and with me today is a very, very special guest. Mr. Rik Legault, I should say Dr. Rik Legault, PhD. He's the senior advisor for Social Behavioral and Economic Sciences for the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate. Rik, how are you today?
[00:00:42] Legault: Great, John. Thanks for having me on here.
[00:00:45] Verrico: Hey, love to chat with you whenever I have the opportunity to do so. So social, behavioral, and economical sciences. That is, really impressive. Would you like to describe a little bit about kind of where that, what that is and how that fits into the Department of Homeland Security’s mission?
[00:01:02] Legault: Absolutely, John. It is an incredibly broad portfolio, right. Social and behavioral sciences and economics cover, things, as broad as psychology, psychiatry, sociology, criminology, political science, and of course economics. So, we're responsible for understanding, all things about, people and organizations and behavior and what we should expect from the people that actually use technology. They're often kinda left out of the equation. But as I tell people all the time, there are something like 240,000 people that work for the Department of Homeland Security. And we interface with millions of people every day, doing our jobs. And so, people is just a major part of the equation that we need to understand to be able to work effectively.
[00:01:56] Verrico: And that is so, so true. So many people don't even think about the fact that people are really the core of all of this, right? It's not, the Science and Technology Directorate is not just about creating widgets. But it's also understanding how those widgets are used. So many other aspects, to it. So as we're talking about this stuff, and as I'm listening to you, and I'm thinking about all the different ways that the Science and Technology Directorate is involved with the operational components and with the first responders of the nation and, uh, the critical infrastructure and all of this. And then I kind of bring it all on back. You know, we're developing technologies to assist out there with the DHS mission. But your role is a little bit different. With the social sciences, focusing on basically taking all of this science and applying science in a way that ultimately informs policy.
[00:02:49] Legault: That's often true.
[00:02:51] Verrico: Yeah, and that's a little bit different.
[00:02:52] Legault: Yeah. That is different. So, you know, I think a lot of people think about technology development and implementation, and evaluation. And when they do, they think it's all about what is the technology? How does it work? When does it work? When does it not work and by work, I mean, perform as advertised, right? So, people that are purely thinking about technology development, everybody here carries a cell phone. I doubt that there's anybody listening to this, that doesn't have a smartphone ready at hand, right? And so, we have this amazing technology with this amazing computing power and the people that often develop those types of technologies that are world changing. They really think about the technology part of it. Does it work the way it's supposed to when it's supposed to? When I touch the screen or I use the fingerprint reader and my hands are dirty, how effective is that? If it gets wet, does it stop working?
[00:03:52] Legault: And what group thinks about. And what I think about all the time is different. Does it convey information well? What is the effect that it has on the rest of your job or the rest of your life? So, we hear a lot of discussion about how smartphone technology affects us, how it affects children, these types of things. That has nothing to do with whether or not the phone works and connects to the internet. It has everything to do with the human use and impact. What are the types of things now that we spend a certain amount of time on our smartphone every day? That we're not doing that we used to do. And what does that mean for people from an evolutionary perspective and how we think to our attention span? And what are the ultimate outcomes of the use of those kinds of technology on our lives holistically, and our ability to, you know, be happy, healthy human beings and, and get our jobs done and pay attention to our loved ones and all those kinds of things.
[00:04:58] Legault: Those are the big behavioral and social questions that have to do with technology. And so, you know, I often think about the rapid, expansion and growth of technology and its various complications. And I think back to, and I think it was in the early fifties, probably about 1953, something like that. I ran across this recently. President Eisenhower was giving a speech and he was talking about the fact that we'd entered the nuclear age, right. We had nuclear, we were starting to understand nuclear energy. We had nuclear weapons, which was a really scary thing, but nobody had really thought about what that meant beyond we can blow up a lot of stuff. And what our doctrine should be and how we should understand it, how these things could be implemented and used and what would be the impact on humanity. And he said something really eloquent, paraphrasing, probably here, but he said something like, you know, the, our intelligence and abilities have far outstripped our wisdom, in humanity. We need to have more wisdom. We really need to think about.
[00:06:06] Verrico: Wow. You know, I immediately, what immediately came to mind is a more recent reference, and that was from Jurassic Park, when they say we're so busy, thinking about what we can do, we don't think about whether or not we should. And it's so, so interesting to understand, you know, technologies come so far and there are so many advances and you don't even realize what that impact is going to be. And then, okay, so you create a new widget and you get it out there for people to use, and then you have to understand, are people actually going to use it? How are they gonna use it? Are they going to trust that new technology and adopt it and all that stuff that, that falls into a lot of, what you study as well, right?
[00:06:46] Legault: That's true. And, so there's three parts here, right? We are a federal agency. We are a public service. And so, people will often tolerate a lot of intrusion on their lives for convenience. And so, think about those smartphones again, folks. Uh, so, we wanna know what the public is going to think and why, and how we need to help people understand and explain things and what those trade-offs are. And know whether or not a massive investment in a security technology perhaps will fail because the public will not accept or tolerate it full stop. That is important. We want to understand also how workforces will accept a new technology or not, for a whole variety of reasons. I'll tell you, before I came to work at DHS. I'm a criminologist, my PhD's in criminology and criminal justice. And, and I was a professor before I came to work at DHS and I was doing some work with DHS and DHS Centers of Excellence and University Programs. In Seattle, there was a big meeting there and we had the opportunity to get a tour of a police emergency operations center. And we were looking at the technology they were using and everybody else there except me was, like an engineering type person, right?
[00:08:11] Verrico: Think about the fact that you just said everybody else there was engineering, except for you. It's like, that's how I feel here. You know, everybody else around me is all these scientists and engineers.
[00:08:19] Legault: Right, right. I'm the only like social science guy there. And I know some things about police and policing and police organizations. You know, this is a big part of my training as a doctoral student. They're showing us their maps and they're really proud of their maps. And they've got these electronic maps. So, the whole, you know, area up there and they're showing how they can listen to radio traffic, and they can drop little, you know, pushpin things on the map to show in an emergency, Where are the police? Where's the fire department, where's the EMS? So, this got the engineers very excited about the possibilities and they started talking about things like we could put GPS on every police officer and every police car and every fire truck. And you can know where everyone is all the time and see exactly where your resources are in real time. And as they were talking about that, mostly to each other, just getting really excited about it. I was looking at the look of absolute horror on the face of all the police officers that were in there, right. Because if you know anything about, and this is true of a lot of jobs, right. But if you know anything about policing. Police have, an enormous amount of autonomy to do their jobs and move around and be where they need to be and do what they need to do. And, the thing that most often causes serious stress for most police officers on a day to day basis is not the bad guys. It's not getting shot at.
[00:09:50] Legault: It's their bosses. Right. And, this is true of a lot of jobs. So, you know, the last thing they want is to have a GPS unit on their belt or something that shows their boss exactly where they are throughout their entire work shift. Right. That's the last thing they want. And I was sitting there listening to this discussion thinking, ah, geez. Because there's no way that they're gonna accept this, outright. So, the use of technology by public servants and the acceptance of technology by public servants, public service organizations, federal, state, local, any of it is really under researched. But it is something that we are starting to do now and have done for the last few years.
[00:10:35] Verrico: And it truly is a fascinating aspect of your work. I mean, it's not just developing a cool new technology it's whether or not that technology is going to be used and accepted.
[00:10:43] Legault: I mean, that's right. And, and, there's another piece of this. So, I think at the beginning, I said there's three really important things to understand when we talk about developing and then implementing a new technology and the first one is, will the public accept it? And the next one is, will the workforce accept it? And why? Or why not? Uh, and the last one is what is it going to do? To the ultimate goals and objectives in your mission that you're trying to achieve. What does it really mean? Because, and I'll give you great example. I'll give you, it's easier to, sort of think about it with an example, right? It always is. License plate readers are everywhere. They're everywhere. they are at toll booths and random places on highways and on city streets and attached to police cars. And again, the first questions that people who develop, these technologies think about are usually, things like. Is it gonna work outdoors? Is it gonna work at all temperatures? Is it gonna work in different amounts of ambient light, sunlight, artificial light? I don't know if you've been to New York state lately, but over the last couple of years, they've gotten rid of all their toll booths on their main interstate highways without slowing down, you just drive through these big, readers that read the device in your vehicle that you used to pay tolls. So, you don't need toll booths. It's much more convenient. The state doesn't need to employ all these people and, and deal with cash, right? There's all kinds of reasons that this is potentially beneficial and.
[00:12:24] Verrico: Certainly, helps with traffic flow too. I know if I don't have to slow down to 15 miles an hour to go through the toll booth.
[00:12:29] Legault: Or come to a complete stop.
[00:12:31] Verrico: It makes things a lot easier.
[00:12:33] Legault: Now, when you put these things on police cars, though, they still work and they work really well. There were these huge federal grants, police departments all over the country bought 'em and stuck 'em on their cars and they've got 'em everywhere. The question that people didn't really ask was how is this gonna impact the real job daily job and goals and objectives of this police department in providing a service to a community, right. And, there was some great work that was done and they found that in a lot of these places, the license plate reader work was sort of distracting officers away from what the police department would like them to be doing. They wanted them to be present in communities. They wanted them to be able to answer calls for service in a timely fashion and resolve them. But because they had these license plate readers, they were spending an awful lot of time driving around parking lots, looking for stolen cars and warrants, right. It ended up being for some police departments, a real distraction from what was expected by the public and the city leadership and the leadership of the police department for those police officers to be doing, right.
[00:13:44] Legault: These are what we call, in medicine, they call them iatrogenic effects. We usually just refer to them as unintended consequences. Now, the technology works as advertised. It does everything it's supposed to do. But when it was implemented, it ended up having some negative outcomes that people didn't really think about or predict that were, sort of counter to the way that those organizations were expecting to do their mission. And that's another really important thing that I think we need to never lose sight of because you just can't always predict what those outcomes are gonna be when you implement a new technology.
[00:14:23] Verrico: Rik, that stuff is just absolutely amazing. And we can talk forever just about that topic alone, because it's so, so incredibly intense and such a different way of thinking. But I know that, I mean, this is again, just a piece of what you do. I wanna talk briefly about the human performance science.
[00:14:42] Legault: Sure.
[00:14:43] Verrico: And what that, that is and how that plays into things, because it's not only, uh, you know, the acceptance of it, but you know, how many times do you hear, you know, when you call tech support, how it's user error.
[00:14:53] Verrico: Right? So, so let's talk about that human performance side of it.
[00:14:56] Legault: Sure. Human performance is a really fascinating area. And when you think about it, as I said earlier, that the fact that, you know, we're a department of people. We're 240,000, federal employees in the Department. What we do and how we do our jobs and how well we can do our jobs is really important. And, making some relatively modest investments in the past, we've had some enormous success in doing that kind of work and developing new ways of doing work and developing new training to do work. It is important, right. How do people perform, not just simply with the implementation of technology, but how do we design technology around it? And what should our policies be as a Department, in taking those things into consideration?
[00:15:47] Verrico: Is that, you know, kind of like looking at things like, you know, just stamina in certain conditions? Is it, you know, how long can a TSA officer look at his screen and still be, sharp enough to catch everything?
[00:15:59] Legault: Oh yeah.
[00:15:59] Verrico: All of the pieces of it.
[00:16:02] Legault: So, we have done that in the past, and I have to say it's made a huge impact on performance. And as advanced as technology and AI and, computing have become for certain types of complex tasks, especially those that require, you know, discretion and interpretation, people are still sort of where it's at. The human brain is pretty amazing, and people's capabilities are amazing. So, the question then becomes, how long can you be effective doing any job and how can we train you to be better? And what are the training techniques that make you best at it? How often do we need to refresh those skills? And what's the best way to do that? Is another question that's really important. And when you think about, the things that we do, the tasks, right? Not the big mission things, but the tasks that you know, the men and women of the Department of Homeland Security do to maintain safety and security in transportation and borders and those types of things every day, all day. It requires a lot of ability to maintain your attention, either looking at X-ray images and screening, it's a lot of screening, right? Looking at people's identification and trying to make a determination, whether that's a real piece of identification or a counterfeit of some kind. And that could be your driver's license and there's 50 different driver's licenses from all over the place.
[00:17:31] Legault: It could be, just think about airports, right? We screen millions of people, on busy travel days, millions of people a day. And every person can carry like two items onto the airplane. And they're all going through the screening, they're all going through the X-ray or the CT machine and their checked bags are going through machines in a different part of the airport and being screened. And we have to have people look at, you know, millions times two to three items that they have to look at an X-ray image of and we have to have people stay sharp. And just by improving training, we were able to demonstrate a, I think a 7 or 8% improvement on people picking things out of bags that shouldn't be there in the images. And when you think about the millions times two or three images that they're looking at every day, even if they only miss, you know, a 10th of a percent of the things. Improving that by, you know, 10% or something times millions and millions of images every day. That's a huge improvement for the cost of some training time and a training program.
[00:18:39] Legault: So that's the other thing about understanding the mission and understanding the impact and implementation and technology, and understanding the outcomes of the use of those technologies is, we can often make an enormous difference, using only, you know, a few hundred thousand or a million dollars, which sounds like a lot of money. It's taxpayer money. People pay their taxes and expect the government to do the right thing. But even spending a million dollars on training, uh, and new training tools and some computers and things like that pales in comparison to the billions upon billions of dollars that it costs to do a major technology upgrade and change the technology that's being used for screening for a technological solution that spoiler, you're not gonna know how much that improved what you were doing until long after you've implemented it and spent the money. It could actually potentially make you worse.
[00:19:41] Verrico: Wow. That's a brilliant perspective.
[00:19:43] Legault: It's just another way to look at the value that doing this kind of homework ahead of time and focusing on those people, those dedicated men and women of the Department, and focusing on making them better at their jobs every day, rather than only thinking about, well, if we had MRI machines everywhere, you know, or something like that, right?
[00:20:05] Verrico: Right. You. Rik, like I said, there, this is such a different perspective from what people would normally think of. But it really gets ahead of a lot of problems. And it really helps in decision support and helping to, really figure out a lot about the mechanics of the operational aspects of the mission. So, there's another aspect. You know, the economic side of what you guys do.
[00:20:31] Legault: Sure, uh, very, very important. you know, when I think John, a lot of your perspective about the Department of Homeland Security depends on who you are and how you interact with them on a regular basis. Most people interact with us at an airport through TSA or at the border. And the group that we forget about, I think, publicly most often is the group that, you know, we see only when, you know, for the most part only when things are very bad and FEMA is who I’m talking about.
[00:20:59] Verrico: I was just gonna say the disaster response folks at FEMA.
[00:21:02] Legault: Right, right. You know, we only, they only start getting in the headlines when something is really nationally gone wrong because of, you know, millions upon millions of dollars of damage from hurricanes and floods and these types of things. So, when you think of the Department of Homeland security, thinking about responding to natural disasters and FEMA might not be the very first thing that people think of. And when you think of FEMA, the very first thing that you think of might not be things that they're responsible for like the National Flood Insurance Program.
[00:21:36] Legault: But what we do know is that the patterns of natural disasters and particularly flooding in the United States are ever changing. And, and there are some things that are becoming more frequent and worse over time that, the Department has a real responsibility to Americans to understand and be smart about and to engage in that National Flood Insurance Program. Because, you know, I think I hope most people know this you're, your homeowner's insurance is not gonna take care of you. If you're in a major flood, you really need that, federal insurance program to prevent, individual personal disasters in your life of losing everything you own and not being recompensed for it and being able to recover. So, the question is, often what are the things that make people, engaged with and purchase or not, or accept the National Flood Insurance Program and how can people best be informed about those benefits? And how do people make those risk based economic decisions in their life?
[00:22:40] Legault: And therefore, how can we make sure that we're giving people all of the information that they need to make good decisions about it?
[00:22:50] Verrico: And in a way that they will understand and in a way that, that addresses their particular pain points and interests and motivations.
[00:23:00] Legault: All those things. Right. So, so that is something that we've been working on for a while and have completed some work in that I don't think anybody's really done before. Right. And so, it's it's a really important thing about how people understand, and this goes across all of our areas. When I'm pressed about overall, what is it that the Department of Homeland Security does?
[00:23:22] Legault: Right? Cause we do so many different things. We have these major mission areas, but when I'm pressed for what is the one thing that the Department of Homeland Security really does, or the one thing that Science and Technology really does for the Department of Homeland Security is, we try to think about and make investments that will mitigate risks of various kinds. Right? Whether it's security or resilience or response or recovery or anything we're trying to be smart about how do we invest the hard-earned tax dollars of Americans in a way that will reduce, buy down, mitigate, however you want to say it, certain types of risks that we're responsible for managing critical infrastructure, resilience, fault response, screening, transportation, natural disasters?
[00:24:24] Legault: All of these things are fundamentally risk-based decisions. And if we're going to be smart about it, we absolutely have to not only understand the risks, but understand how people understand the risks and what's most important. And what will the trade-offs be for a certain investment and what will the measurable outcomes be for that investment to reduce the risks that Americans experience just being Americans every day.
[00:24:57] Verrico: That is so impactful. So how does that make you feel, knowing that you actually, you and your team have that kind of impact?
[00:25:05] Legault: Well, this is, this is the thing, right. Is as everybody here is a, you know, a civil servant of some type, or another. Personally, I've been in some type of public service, pretty much my entire life since the, literally the day after I turned 18. I think it's important for, folks to take what they do seriously and have a huge amount of intrinsic reward from the work that they do. And, and every single one of the folks that I know and work with closely at S&T, not only have the benefit of really getting a lot of, you know, personal reward and satisfaction, from advancing science, as scientists, but also, work very hard, to make sure that we're giving people who have to make decisions, big decisions about these types of investments in how to address these risks, giving them the very best, most transparent, most honest information to inform their decision. And it's very rewarding to be able to do that. And to know that we've got excellent people who are excellent trained, who are really motivated to work hard, to do the right thing.
[00:26:23] Verrico: And Rik, I know that about you. I know that you find these kinds of things, so rewarding, you know, we both served in the military. You are still serving. And I know you got, and by the way, a belated, congratulations to your promotion, to Lieutenant Colonel in the Air National Guard. Can you talk, I mean, I don't wanna go again too far afield here because we are running outta time, but really briefly, I know you did a pandemic response deployment. Can you talk a little bit about that?
[00:26:50] Legault: Absolutely. Yes. So, the area that I work in in the Air Force and Air National Guard is, uh, called aeromedical evacuation. And so, we are able to take people that are sick or injured and put them on an airplane and provide them with high-quality, life-sustaining medical care, and fly them from point a to point B literally anywhere in the world and to a place where they can get the level and type of care that they need to maximize their chances of recovery or survival. Right. Uh, which is in itself an incredibly rewarding job. And 90%, I think of the capability of the entire U.S. Air Force to do that, to put medical crews on airplanes and fly people wherever they need to go. 90% of that capability is in the Air National Guard in the reserves, in the Air Force. So, I've been involved in that for as an enlisted flight medic. and later as a medical operations officer, since 1996. And just cuz you know, cuz it's trivia and I, and just to show, I've had a lot of jobs. I was a power plant, main propulsion Engineer mechanic when I was enlisted in the Navy.
[00:28:05] Verrico: In the Navy, that's right. That, which was my service. Where we're we have the sea service in, in common here.
[00:28:11] Legault: That's right. I led a group that was responsible for infectious disease transport on airplanes for about 64% of the globe. We were in California, and we were responsible for the western United States, South America and the entire Pacific Rim in Asia. So, it was a very fulfilling job. Always is a very, personally fulfilling to be able to get people the help they need, anywhere in the world.
[00:28:41] Verrico: You know, Rik, this is what I love about working with you. You are definitely one of the most service minded people I've come across, and why I so thoroughly, enjoy our relationship. So, thank you so much for everything that you've been doing throughout your vast and varied career. We are going to be running out of time here. So, there's so much more to what you bring to the table. You're really brilliant and your sense of service and your dedicated team. You know, we've talked about a lot of little pieces of what you do. We didn't get into talking about countering human trafficking. We didn't get into talking about digital forensics. There's so, so much, and I'm hoping that we can get you back on for a future episode of Technologically Speaking, so we can get into the weeds on some of this other stuff.
[00:29:29] Legault: Absolutely John, it's a testament to the varied, role and missions of the Department of Homeland Security, that we engage in the breadth of problems, in problem solving that we do. It's a real privilege to be able to have, you know, studied for so long and developed professionally as a scientist. And to be able to work with other scientists, to bring the benefits of our type of work to bear on these big problems of the Department. But it's also an interesting educational opportunity, in that people often don't realize the breadth of the incredibly positive things that the Department of Homeland Security does and can do, and the types of problems that we deal with on a regular basis. So yeah, just being able to be a part of that. I often tell people I'm a criminologist I've spent my entire life studying, you know, all the horrible things people do to one another. But what allows me to be positive about it is to be able to make a real contribution to how we deal with those things to be as effective as we can be in discovering them, figuring out what to do about them and in implementing change so that we can be better tomorrow than we are today.
[00:30:50] Verrico: Rik, what advice would you give to, students today who may be considering, a career in the social sciences, and looking at how they can apply those types of skills?
[00:31:02] Legault: Do math, right. Some people will be very upset for me for saying that. But, one of the things that I think is lost on a lot of people who don't have a lot of exposure to the types of work that social scientists do, is not entirely. but, a lot of our work requires an enormous amount of background in training in mathematics and statistics. Don't be afraid of it. It's a useful tool. It's not the be all end all of what we do, but it's a very useful tool.
[00:31:32] Verrico: I never would've thought about applying mathematics to social sciences. It's just, and you're right. A lot of people don't make that connection, but you're, but now that you bring it up, it's like, oh, duh, why didn't I think of that?
[00:31:46] Legault: Right? Right. Well, it's huge. In fact, just for the bureaucrats who might listen to this in the crowd. As a senior social scientist at DHS S&T I'm actually classified as a general physical scientist. And the reason that I'm qualified for that classification is because of the amount of mathematics and statistics in my graduate transcripts.
[00:32:12] Verrico: There you go.
[00:32:13] Legault: It's a big deal. it is really how a lot of the science gets done. One of our core competencies is data collection and analysis, and it's very, very important in building scientific evidence. So don't be afraid of that.
[00:32:25] Verrico: Absolutely brilliant. Thank you so much, Rik. Thank you again for all you do. This has been a great discussion and I'm so glad we had this opportunity to talk today on Technologically Speaking. It's great talking to people who are out there really making a true difference. This has been Technologically Speaking, the official podcast of the DHS Science and Technology Directorate. To learn more about S&T and find additional information about what you heard in this episode, visit us online at scitech.dhs.gov and follow us on social media at DHS SciTech. Thanks for listening.