WASHINGTON -- The United States should take advantage of its scientific and engineering strengths to detect, thwart, and respond to terrorist attacks more effectively, says a new National Academies report. The report identifies actions, including deployment of available technologies, that can be taken immediately, and it points to the urgent need to initiate research and development activities in critical areas. An independent homeland security institute also should be established to help the government make crucial technical decisions and devise strategies that can be put into practice successfully.
"The scientific and engineering community is aware that it can make a critical contribution to protecting the nation from catastrophic terrorism," said Lewis M. Branscomb, co-chair of the committee that wrote report, and emeritus professor, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. "Our report gives the government a blueprint for using current technologies and creating new capabilities to reduce the likelihood of terrorist attacks and the severity of their consequences."
The report emphasizes that certain actions can be taken now to make the nation safer -- protect and control nuclear weapons and material, produce sufficient supplies of vaccines and antibodies, secure shipping containers and power grids, and improve ventilation systems and emergency communications. Dozens of specific recommendations are offered on research and development activities that can lead to technologies with the potential for lessening vulnerabilities to terrorism. For example, advances in biology and medicine can make it possible to produce drugs to fight pathogens for which there are no current treatments. New approaches to making electric-power grids intelligent and adaptive can make them much less vulnerable to attack, allowing power to be preserved for critical services such as communication and transportation. New computer programs for data-mining and information fusion can make it much easier to "connect the dots" among apparently unrelated fragments of intelligence information and to combine sensor readings to allow rapid detection of toxic agents and other threats.
Research also can lead to new emergency equipment, such as better protective gear for rescue workers and sensors to alert them to radiological or chemical contamination and other hazards when they enter a disaster area. Buildings can be made more blast and fire resistant than they are today with improved design standards, and new methods for air filtration and decontamination can lessen casualties from certain types of attacks and greatly speed up recovery.
"These opportunities will go unrealized unless the government is able to establish and execute a coherent strategy for taking advantage of the nation's scientific and technical capabilities," added co-chair Richard D. Klausner, executive director of global health, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Seattle. "The federal agencies with science and engineering expertise are not necessarily the same as the agencies responsible for deploying systems to protect the nation, and they all must work together to discover and implement the best counterterrorism technologies."
The Office of Homeland Security is currently responsible for setting a national counterterrorism strategy and coordinating relevant programs. To help determine priorities and create an effective technical strategy, the Office of Homeland Security should establish a new Homeland Security Institute comprised of experts who can analyze vulnerabilities in critical infrastructures and evaluate the effectiveness of systems deployed to reduce them, the committee said. This should include "red teaming" exercises where institute personnel play the role of terrorists to discover weaknesses in U.S. defenses. The institute should 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.
A new Department of Homeland Security, as proposed by President Bush, will need 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's Office of Science and Technology Policy. The Homeland Security Institute proposed by the committee should support the undersecretary for technology once the new department is established.
The report is directed primarily to the federal government, but the committee recognizes that it will be essential for the federal government to work closely with many other institutions - such as cities and states, private companies, and universities - to discover and deploy counterterrorism solutions. Many of the nation's critical infrastructures -- such as transportation, communications, and energy systems -- are privately owned and operated. To make it easier for these companies to improve the likelihood that their services and facilities can survive a terrorist attack, government and industrial research should be directed toward producing technologies that not only protect infrastructures, but also deliver economic and social benefits to society. This will reduce the costs of security and help sustain the public's commitment to counterterrorism efforts.
Shortly after Sept. 11, the presidents of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine offered President Bush the advice and counsel of the National Academies in the new war on terrorism. Under the auspices of the National Research Council, the Academies' operating arm, this committee and eight supporting panels included 118 of the nation's top scientists, engineers, and doctors.
The report was funded by the National Academies, which provide science, engineering, and medical advice to the federal government under a congressional charter granted to the National Academy of Sciences in 1863.
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