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Experts: Science Essential in Fight  Against Terrorism - 2002-06-25

A panel of leading U.S. scientists, engineers and policy experts says the government is unprepared to harness the nation's vast science and technology assets to combat terrorism. The group is calling on the government to integrate these resources and coordinate research on new ways to stave off terrorist threats.

The war on terrorism is not our father's war. The last generation faced the Cold War, pitting state adversaries against each other with known, fixed military and industrial assets. The technical priorities were clear. But for former Harvard University government professor Lewis Branscomb, terrorism requires a different technical response.

"This situation will not be dealt with successfully by a military-industrial complex," he said. "The customers for the technical work in the Cold War were the military, by and large. In this situation, the customers are hundreds of thousands of Americans out there who are first responders, who are local officials in emergency control centers in our cities, and other individuals who are the targets of the attack."

As a result, Mr. Branscomb and a panel of 100 other experts say U.S. science must be enlisted to protect people, farms, cities, and the country's energy, transportation and other infrastructure from potential nuclear, biological, and chemical attacks.

After months of study, the panel has issued a report for the National Academy of Sciences emphasizing that certain actions can be taken now to make the United States safer. They include better security for nuclear weapons, producing enough vaccine and antibodies, securing shipping facilities and electric power grids, and improving ventilation systems and emergency communications.

The panel also recommends research into new anti-terrorist technologies, such as drugs to fight organisms for which no treatment exists, better protective gear for rescue workers, intelligent and adaptive power grids, and improved methods for air filtration and decontamination.

But the experts note that these opportunities will go unrealized unless the U.S. government executes a coherent strategy to take advantage of its science and technology strengths.

National Academy of Sciences president Bruce Alberts said, "The vigorous scientific and technical community in this nation has a great deal to contribute to future counter-terrorism efforts, and neither our government nor our scientific institutions are perfectly structured at the present time to take advantage of these great opportunities."

For panel co-chair Richard Klausner, executive director of global health for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a restructuring effort would require many government agencies to think and behave in unfamiliar ways. "Many of the new aspects of making the homeland safer will involve agencies with responsibilities for borders or the mail, et cetera, that have not traditionally been science or technology intense entities," he said. "They will be called upon to formulate technologic needs and to evaluate potential solutions to make things safer."

For Lewis Branscomb, a key proposal is establishment of a private, independent Homeland Security Institute to advise the government on ways create an effective technical strategy to fight terrorism. "It was really important to address the question of how do we define what the right questions are the research should address?" he asked. "There should be created as soon as it can be done a body of perhaps a few hundred experts at analysis of complex systems to create test beds and recommend how proposals for technologies to be deployed should in fact be evaluated and once deployed, how do you test them to find out if they would actually work?"

Science and technology cut two ways, however. Panel member Ashton Carter, a Harvard University professor of science and international affairs, says the technologies that make the United States powerful also make it vulnerable to attack by terrorists who themselves have access to increasingly sophisticated technologies.

But according to Mr. Carter, that requires, in part, a scientific and technological response, like fighting fire with fire. "Science and technology is something we are good at as a nation and that could allow us to keep on living the kind of life we want and still be safe at the same time," he said.