The University Record, July 1, 2002

National Academies: Universities to play key roles in response to terrorism

By Mike Waring, Washington, D.C., Office,
and Toby Smith, Federal Relations for Research

This past week, the National Academies issued a report looking at how science and technology can and should be used in the Bush administration’s war against terrorism.

The report, called “Making the Nation Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism,” contains three main sets of recommendations.

First, it identifies key actions that can be taken now using existing technologies. These actions range from the development and use of “robust systems for protection, control, and accounting of nuclear weapons and special nuclear materials,” to ensure that “trusted spokespersons will be able to inform the public promptly and with technical authority whenever the technical aspects of an emergency are dominant in the public’s concerns.”

Second, the report identifies “urgent” opportunities for “reducing current and future risks even further through longer-term research and development activities.” Specific recommendations here include “[developing] effective treatments and preventatives for known pathogens for which current responses are unavailable and for potential emerging pathogens,” “[advancing] the practical utility of data fusion and data mining for intelligence analysis, and [enhancing] information security against cyber attacks,” and “[advancing] engineering design technologies and fire-rating standards for blast- and fire-resistant buildings.”

Third, the report calls for the development of two new mechanisms for ensuring that federal antiterrorism efforts are able to take full advantage of available scientific and technological expertise. One of these mechanisms would be a new Homeland Security Institute comprising “experts who can analyze vulnerabilities in critical infrastructures and evaluate the effectiveness of systems deployed to reduce them.”

The institute would be a not-for-profit, contractor-operated organization “staffed with people experienced in analyzing complex systems and responding quickly to requests for advice from senior government officials.”

The other mechanism would be the appointment within the new Department of Homeland Security of an undersecretary for technology “to coordinate science and technology programs within the department and to keep it connected to research-oriented agencies such as the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, Department of Energy and Department of Defense, as well as the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.” The Homeland Security Institute would support the undersecretary for technology once the new department is established.

Research universities, like U-M, have an important role to play in the war against terrorism, state the report’s authors. Universities provide a locus for creative research to help to address future terrorist and other national threats. The role of universities also extends to training students to become leaders in science and engineering, and serving as important links between state and local government.

The report recommends that a human resource development program aimed at producing more B.A. and Ph.D. degree graduates in science and technology fields be made a priority. The National Science Foundation is suggested as one possible leader of such an effort. The report also says a balance will need to be maintained between the need for protecting vital information while at the same time maintaining open and free research. To this end, the report calls upon the government to enter into a dialogue with research universities “on the balance between protecting information vital to national security and the free and open way in which research is most efficiently and creatively accomplished.”

U-M faculty who sat on the panels that helped to produce this report included: Rolf Deininger, professor of public health and Glenn Knoll, professor of nuclear engineering.

To read the complete report, go to www.nas.edu.

To reach the Washington, D.C., office on these or other issues, call (202) 554-0578 or send e-mail to mwaring@umich.edu or tobys@umich.edu.