Emma Barrett, Professor of Psychology, Security and Trust at The University of Manchester Picture the scene. Analysts and detectives meet to discuss the latest intelligence in an ongoing, high priority police investigation. The mood is tense, anxious.
The subjects of the investigation could be planning a spectacular terrorist attack. Many lives could be at stake. The pressure is on. How does the team make sense of the new intelligence? Where does it fit with what else they know? How can they understand the suspects’ motivations, relationships and behaviours – and crucially what they might do next?
Such imagery, while redolent of many a movie, television show or book, is not confined to entertainment, however. In reality, such scenes play out day in, day out, away from the spotlight, in the enduring fight against crime. But think about it – how does a detective or analyst make sense of uncertain, ambiguous and incomplete information in a high-stakes investigation? It’s far from straightforward.
But that’s where Emma Barrett comes in.
Currently Professor of Psychology, Security and Trust at the University of Manchester, hers has been a career steeped in the art (and science) of investigations – an issue which continues to exert a mesmeric allure.
“I’m a bit obsessed with how some detectives and analysts are really good at what was going on in complex investigations, whereas others can get bamboozled by it,” she explains. “How people make sense of complex and ambiguous information in high stakes, fast moving real world situations is something that is equally applicable to investigators or intelligence analysts, and I just find that whole area fascinating.”

Applying research to the real world

Client Conversation: Turning Information into Intelligence - Real World Icon I’m speaking to Emma via video conference. Ordinarily I’ve grown more than tired of such pandemic-enforced communication channels but in her case I’ll make an exception.
Speaking from her book-lined study, her sheer likability – not to mention sense of humour and modesty – continues to shine through, as well as producing the occasional surprise. Given her success in academia, it comes as a bit of a jolt to hear her describe herself as “a career civil servant” but that’s where her professional life began, with an analyst role at the Ministry of Defence.
“I studied anthropology at university and sat the fast stream exams, thinking I might end up somewhere like the Department for Education,” she recalls. “I got a letter from the Ministry of Defence about a potential job but thought ‘no way’ – I’d been a CND marcher – but then I thought I’d better follow it up as interview practice and that’s how I ended up in government.”
There then followed a variety of government postings, including one that involved work with what was then the regional organised crime squads – one of the predecessors to the National Crime Agency. It was this period which sparked her interest, nay fascination, with psychology in law enforcement and so she decided to pursue this burgeoning passion by studying for a PhD, concluding with her thesis on the interpretation and exploitation of information in criminal investigations.
At the same time, though, she kept busy by doing some part time work, including some government consultancy in defence and security, before going on to what she thought would be a one year scoping project on the role of psychology in security and law enforcement. Instead, it turned into something far bigger.
“Fast forward 15 years and I’d built a research unit within government working across different departments supporting mainly the police and other security personnel,” she says. “It was our role to develop and apply behavioural, psychological, and social science research to a range of law enforcement, security, and defence issues.”
“I’ve found that you have be fluent in two languages – practitioner and academic. People who can do both of those things are actually pretty rare” Professor Emma Barrett, Professor of Psychology, Security and Trust at The University of Manchester
This was quite an achievement but clearly there will have been some bumps along the way. When asked to identify the biggest barrier to putting research into practice her answer comes quickly.
“Translation,” she says, firmly. “That’s actually one of the reasons I started the unit as I wanted it to be a translation and interpretation hub. I’ve found that you have be fluent in two languages – practitioner and academic. People who can do both of those things are actually pretty rare. That’s why I recruited a lot of young, smart behavioural and social scientists into the unit and trained them see things through practitioner eyes.”
She went on to identify a second challenge – the need to be pragmatic, not dogmatic, even though she admits that not everyone would agree. “Some academics would be quite strict about how their research is applied and generalised – and I respect that as that is how good science is done,” she concedes.
“Some academics would be quite strict about how their research is applied and generalised – and I respect that as that is how good science is done. But you’re never going to have a piece of research that is absolutely 100 per cent mappable onto a practitioner problem – there will always be a bit of interpretation” Professor Emma Barrett, Professor of Psychology, Security and Trust at The University of Manchester
“But you’re never going to have a piece of research that is absolutely 100 per cent mappable onto a practitioner problem – there will always be a bit of interpretation. This can be quite a challenging rope to walk. But my experience with practitioners is that they have always been keen to take whatever they can to help them do a better job as they care so much about it.”

Reaching the crest

Client Conversation: Turning Information into Intelligence - CREST Icon Of course, the translation barrier is prevalent in many industries, but not every sector can call on a specific academic centre to help. Fortunately for those working in security and law enforcement they can turn to the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST), which Emma helped set up while at Lancaster University.
CREST is now the UK’s hub for behavioural and social science research into security threats. In addition to its research activities, it focuses heavily on hosting events and building communities, while also providing training to research leaders of the future. Emma says that in her time there, roundtable meetings were key in uncovering new and ripe areas for further investigation.
“One of the areas CREST has been particularly successful in has been about what works in interview settings,” she explains. “One of the things I did was set up a round table series where we’d get a bunch of frontline officers together with one or two academics with a particular speciality and get a Q&A going. Quite often we’d uncover a question where no one has done any research on it, prompting them to go off and do it.”
This all means that if practitioners have a challenging interview coming up – either with a suspect or even someone from their own organisation facing a disciplinary or security issue – CREST can offer up toolkits or other training courses which can help them find the best approach, all based on techniques identified from their research. A truly invaluable service in many ways.

Moving to Manchester

Client Conversation: Turning Information into Intelligence - Manchester Icon Emma has been ensconced at the University of Manchester since 2018, but how did it come about? It turns out that she kind of carved out her own niche. “Manchester had originally been looking for a professor of cyber security, but there are so few good people in that space who are available,” she says.
“They asked me and I was a bit cheeky – my pitch was that lots of universities have academic centres of excellence in cyber security, but they are all run out of engineering or computer science departments. They’re great, but if you want to be distinctive, don’t be like everyone else. If you talk to business or government the questions they ask are human-related, like how to get their employees to behave in a secure way? How do we know what cyber criminals will do next? Long story short, they offered me the job and I accepted.”
For four years, she was the University’s strategic lead for digital trust and security, and it seems pertinent to ask, why not “cyber security”? “The problem is that ‘cyber’ just means so many different things to so many different people,” she says.
“Some would see it in a technical focus whereas others would focus on user experience. At Manchester, we have researchers looking at digital democracy and threats to democracy such as misinformation and extremism online. This, for me, falls within ‘trust and security’. Other researchers are looking at digital technologies and different types of crime. Then there’s all the stuff about AI bias and lack of trust in new technologies. I don’t think all of that can be described as cyber security. It happens in cyber space but it’s not cyber security.”
Emma has also been kept more than busy by spearheading Sprite+, a security, privacy, identity and trust engagement network funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and supported by the Universities of Manchester, Lancaster, Queen's University Belfast, Southampton and Imperial College London. Again a testament to her abilities to bring different communities together, Sprite+ is now made up of hundreds of people involved in research, practice, and policy with a focus on digital contexts, not to mention 18 project partners including BAE Systems Digital Intelligence.
“We are a hub for engagement between academic and non-academic communities,” she explains. “It’s all about finding ways to connect about issues relating to these key topics. About 25 per cent of members are non-academic – people from government, Industry, civil society – so it’s a really nice mix of people. Basically, we want to create opportunities for people from different sectors to come together who otherwise wouldn’t have.”

Project North West

Client Conversation: Turning Information into Intelligence - Northwest Icon Our conversation has bounced around a number of different areas, but one running thread has been Emma’s enduring love for the North West region, not only for the quality of life but also for the collaboration which ripples across Greater Manchester.
“You have the combined authority, the city councils, academics, SMEs, as well as central government like NCSC, GCHQ and DCMS, and big industry players like BAE Systems Digital Intelligence,” she says. “They’re all sitting in the same room and sharing expertise, devising solutions to problems together, rather than separately. I’ve simply not experienced that anywhere else.”
That’s not all. In addition to these organisations teaming up, the region is teeming with five universities and a highly active and vocal third sector – something which “blows me away”, says Emma.  “The number of social enterprises and charities doing really fantastic work is incredible,” she adds. “I’m thinking of groups like CodeYourFuture, which is helping refugees, Tech Returners, helping tech professionals returning to the industry, and the Responsible Tech Collective. It really is an incredibly vibrant ecosystem and that’s what makes it really exciting.”
All this and there’s the recently launched Security and Trust Partnership between GCHQ and universities in the region. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Emma played a key role in bringing it together.
“GCHQ wanted a way of working with academics and have a flexible vehicle for working with us – rather than just sponsoring individual bits of research as they’ve done before,” she explains. “They also wanted something where they could co-create and deliver projects with academics. The conversations started about four years ago – it’s been a very complex partnership to pull together –but it’s now up and running and there really isn’t another partnership like it in the UK.”
Although Emma is no longer involved in it, and she’s recently handed over her role as the strategic lead for digital trust and security at Manchester University, there’s no chance of her slowing down any time soon. “I can go off and do more things now,” she says smiling.
Her colleagues, partners and friends wouldn’t have it any other way.

About the author
Victoria Knight is a Strategic Business Director at BAE Systems Digital Intelligence

Further reading

  • Uniting Greater Manchester around diversity. Victoria Knight of BAE Systems Applied Intelligence & Co Chair of the Greater Manchester Cyber Advisory Group explains why greater gender diversity must be an important part of Greater Manchester’s drive to become a world leading digital city-region
  • Moving cyber into the diplomatic mainstream. What’s cyber got to do with diplomacy and development? Actually, a huge amount. Miriam Howe sits down with Will Middleton to hear about life as Cyber Director of the UK’s Foreign Office, and why cyber is now firmly entrenched on the frontline of national security
  • Hanging up the uniform. Few changes in life are as significant as completing one’s service in the armed forces. Here, we talk to two veterans, Adam Spaul and Kieran Cassidy about their experiences of transitioning from soldier to civilian.
  • 10 principles of real-time decisioning. Decisions are now more connected and complex than ever before, says Holly Armitage. Here she sets out 10 principles which power today’s world of real-time decisioning
  • Helping innovation take flight. Group Captain Blythe Crawford is on a mission to do aviation differently. He tells Mivy James about his experiences of leveraging technology and innovation to drive forward change in Defence

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