Report: Invest in tech tools

A group of leading scientists released a report last week urging the federal government to develop new scientific and technological tools in the war against terrorism.

The National Research Council report, "Making the Nation Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism," includes a long list of vulnerabilities facing the United States, from lack of air safety to the need for better detection of chemical and biological weapons.

"Our society is too complex and interconnected to defend against all possible threats," the report says. As some threats are diminished, others may arise. Terrorists may change their goals and tactics."

The group of 120 scientists warned that even as technology is advancing, the means of mass destruction are falling into the hands of smaller and smaller entities. They urged more money and a better organization in the government for carrying out a scientific and technological research agenda.

"In the war against terrorism, the enemy may be living among us and is largely unknown or at least unidentifiable," the report says.

The report was released June 25 at a joint hearing held by the House Science Committee and the Senate Science, Technology and Space Subcommittee, during which lawmakers urged the expansion of the budget for scientific research.

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House committee, opened the hearing by promising that research and development will remain high on the homeland security agenda. The committee is likely to create a top-level position and a clearly defined unit relating to R&D within the proposed Homeland Security Department, he said.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), chairman of the Senate subcommittee, said in his opening statement that the country needs a "technology road map" to fight terrorism that consists of "everything from the simple-sounding chore of improving government e-mail capability to the exotic science of identifying new bioterror pathogens."

The report, aimed at helping the Bush administration use the nation's scientific and technical resources more effectively against terrorism, described a number of ways that science and engineering can contribute to protecting the nation. It urged immediate action and international partnerships for long-term research projects.

The report evaluated nine areas:

* Nuclear and radiological threats.

* Human and agricultural health systems.

* Toxic chemicals and explosive materials.

* Information technology.

* Energy systems.

* Transportation systems within cities.

* Fixed infrastructure.

* People's response to terrorism.

* Interdependent systems.

In each area, the report provided a broad range of recommendations, including analysis and inventing technologies.

Although the report did not estimate what it would cost to upgrade and develop new technologies, it recommended that "a strategic long-term [R&D] agenda should be established to address three primary counterterrorism-related areas in IT: information and network security, the IT needs of emergency responders and information fusion."

Henry Kelly, president of the Federation of American Scientists, a think tank that works on science policy issues, said Boehlert was on the right track. Federal spending has grown, but "not nearly fast enough," he said.

"For the existing and future technologies described in the report to make the nation safer, they will have to be effectively implemented," according to Lewis Branscomb and Richard Klausner, co-chairmen of the National Research Council's Committee on Science and Technology for Countering Terrorism. "A piecemeal approach to defending a critical facility or system will be ineffective."

Officials running the Office of Homeland Security or, when it is created, the Homeland Security Department, must have "strong analytical capability" to help them make the right decisions, Branscomb and Klausner said in their joint testimony. They recommended that a nonprofit, contractor-operated Homeland Security Institute be formed to provide technical information to support that decision-making.

***

Tools of the trade

The National Research Council report recommendations include:

* Developing systems for protection against nuclear weapons and keeping track of them.

* Preventing biological and chemical threats and treating their impact.

* Layering security systems for all transportation modes, especially shipping containers and vehicles that contain large quantities of toxic or flammable materials.

* Protecting energy distribution sources.

* Improving air filtration systems.

* Providing dependable communications networks for emergency responders.

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