A consortium of researchers dedicated to improving the understanding of the human causes and consequences of terrorism

Researcher Spotlight: Bob Lamb

ICONS Director and Associate Research Scientist Bob Lamb first heard about START “mainly by osmosis,” as during START’s first decade he was doing his doctoral work studying conflict and extremism at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy. His research on conflict overlapped with START’s throughout his career, until he finally came to START to take the helm as the director of START’s International Communication & Negotiation Simulations (ICONS) team, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

How did you first get involved with START?

At the beginning of START’s second decade, I was working at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. At one point I was leading a study on South Asian regional dynamics for the SMA office at the Pentagon, while Amy Pate was at START leading a study on extremist pathways to power for the same funder. We were in a few briefings together and had a few exchanges during that period. After that, START’s data kept popping up in what seemed like half the conflict research I encountered in the wild!

Where did you grow up?

In Maple Shade, New Jersey, between Philadelphia to the west and the Pine Barrens to the east. Most people associate New Jersey with the New York suburbs, but where I grew up, we were near the Pinelands, the largest forested area on the East Coast. We camped, hiked, canoed, shot rifles, and rode horses through pine forests. It was glorious!

How did you become interested in your field of study?

I was always interested in international affairs and foreign policy, but after 9/11 and during grad school, I became particularly interested in the complexity of those problems. Over time, curiosity about complex problems led to even more curiosity about the complexity of solving them. So most of my more recent research has involved trying to understand different ways human beings govern conflicts and solve problems, starting with the premise that institutions and coalitions are complex systems rather than bureaucracies or simple partnerships. That’s turned out to be a really useful way of thinking about strategy and policy implementation.

Who has been the most influential person during the course of your academic pursuits?

There have been a few. Nancy Gallagher at the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM) has been my most consistent mentor for two decades; she seems to be an expert on just about every topic there is in international security. She’s always steered me toward clear thinking, and still does every time I meet with her. My thesis adviser, John Steinbruner, taught me the importance of paying attention to first principles, path dependence, and complexity. Tom Schelling, my strategy professor, and Tim Gulden, a fellow PhD student in grad school, introduced me to (respectively) analog and digital methods for studying complex dynamics. David Crocker and Karol Soltan, who were on my thesis committee, and Lisa Portmess, my undergrad adviser, taught me to how connect ethics and theory to policy and practice — tools for reasoning about hard problems that inform everything I do every day!

What is your favorite part about your job?

I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by how emotionally intelligent everyone I work with is. That’s not always the case. It makes my job about a thousand times easier. Aside from that, ICONS has the luxury of being about to work on just about any issue that can only be solved when people are capable of navigating complexity well. And we get to think creatively about how we can help people do that. So on any given day I can be designing a new research program, or engaging in conversations about scenarios and injects and storylines, or meeting people working on anything from polarization to climate change.

What are your plans for the future?

Right now I’m designing a new research program on democratic recovery. There’s a lot of good research on democratic erosion and democratization, but much less about how democracies that start to erode end up recovering. People dealing with polarization and extremism need a better playbook for how to recover democracy before it slides past the point of no return. So I’m hoping to launch an ambitious research agenda that focuses not just on other countries but domestically too, involving case studies, machine learning, modeling, experiments, workshops and simulation development. I’d love to engage communities throughout the country, both as part of the research and through simulations to encourage more effective ways to keep our democracy strong. I’ve also done some work on biodiversity preservation and climate action in the past and would love to collaborate with people in those fields to design some new simulations for education and training.

Outside of work, what do you do for fun?

I know “spending time with my family” is too obvious an answer, but it’s true. We have two daughters, eight and twelve years old, and they’re a blast to hang out with! Aside from that, I do a lot of gardening in my yard, mostly with natives, edibles, and especially edible natives. I try to spend as much time as I can exploring nature: primitive camping, foraging, plant identification, woodcraft, knot craft, etc. And every few years I try to learn some new skill or activity — mixology, Argentine tango, programming, bouldering, etc. Keeps life interesting!