NSF invests in research to help disrupt operations of illicit supply networks


Credit: Ishani Mehta, CEPT university, Ahemedabad, India

Networks that illegally traffic in everything from people and opioids to human organs and nuclear material pose threats to U.S. health, prosperity and security. Nine new awards from the National Science Foundation (NSF) will advance the scientific understanding of how such illicit supply networks function — and how to dismantle them.

The new awards support research that combines engineering with computer, physical and social sciences to address a danger that poses significant consequences for national and international security. Nimble and technologically sophisticated networks traffic in contraband that includes people, illegal weapons, drugs, looted antiquities, and exotic animal products. Unencumbered by national boundaries, they funnel illicit profits to criminal organizations, and fuel transnational and terrorist organizations.

Other federal agencies and organizations have worked on this issue for many years, with involvement of specialized fields in the academic community. The new NSF awards leverage fundamental research, taking an engineering systems-based approach made far more powerful by the integration of other scientific disciplines.

"We've been studying commercial supply chains for years and figuring out how to make them resilient — now we want to use these same principles to make illicit networks less resilient. We want to break them," said Georgia-Ann Klutke, NSF program director for Operations Engineering in the Directorate for Engineering. "These are systems that operate by the same dynamics and use the same infrastructure components as legal commercial distribution systems. Our goal is to provide fundamental insights into the operations and economics of these networks that other federal agencies and organizations can use to attack this very complex problem."

NSF's directorates for Engineering (ENG), Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE), and Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) jointly supported the new awards.

The new awards stem from conversations among scientists and engineers who met at NSF-funded workshops in Austin, Texas in March 2017 and in Arlington, Virginia in December 2017, led by researchers at The University of Texas at Austin.

"This is a perfect example of synergistic research — pairing social scientists with engineers and computer scientists before the research project is underway," said Jon Leland, NSF program director for SBE. "Social scientists are bringing domain expertise on the human aspects of trafficking and trying to understand, for example, how criminals interact and build networks, how targets are selected and what makes a target or a victim susceptible. Engineers and computer scientists bring expertise that allows us to understand the mathematical structure of networks and how they should function. The result is an analytical depiction of a real-world trafficking network and, hopefully, recipes for disrupting it."

Each award provides approximately $300,000 over two years to conduct exploratory research. Teams include researchers from the operations research, geography and spatial sciences, law and criminal justice, data and computational science, economics and public health communities.

"One goal of this group of awards is to get the right people together to talk to one another," said Wendy Nilsen, NSF program director for Information and Intelligent Systems within the Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering. "There are lots of computer scientists and engineers who want to address societal problems while still conducting basic research. These are really complicated problems where we think we can have real impact."


Below are the nine new projects being funded, along with the principal investigators and awardee organizations.

  • Disrupting exploitation and trafficking labor supply networks in post-Harvey rebuild: an evidence-based multi-agent stochastic decision-making framework, Matt Kammer-Kerwick, University of Texas, Austin
  • Network analysis and optimal interventions for disruption of organ trafficking, Naoru Koizumi, George Mason University
  • A data analytic approach to understanding human trafficking networks, Renata Konrad, Worcester Polytechnic Institute
  • Unraveling illicit supply chains for falsified pharmaceuticals with a citizen science approach, Marya Lieberman, University of Notre Dame
  • Anticipatory interdiction in narco-trafficking networks, Nicholas Magliocca, University of Alabama
  • Modeling operations of human trafficking networks for effective interdiction, Lauren Martin, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities
  • Detecting and disrupting illicit supply networks via traffic distribution systems, Nick Nikiforakis, Stony Brook University
  • A new multi-layered network approach for improving the detection of human trafficking, Louise Shelley, George Mason University
  • Advanced analytics, intelligence and processes for disrupting operations of illicit supply networks, Steven Simske, Colorado State University
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