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Summer/Fall 2002 Vol. 2 No. 2

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Graphic by Michele de la Menardiere, National Academy Press Science's Call to Duty:
The National Academies Examine Threats to Homeland Security

Whether by designing sophisticated weapons, building better ships and planes, or advancing battlefield medicine, scientists, engineers, and doctors have always answered their country's call to service during wartime, and the current war against terrorism is no different. A week after the Sept. 11 attacks, the presidents of the National Academies wrote to President Bush, saying that the Academies "stand ready to provide advice and counsel in any way that the nation desires." The Bush administration took them up on the offer almost immediately and asked for real-time advice on how to protect the mail during the anthrax attacks.

U.S. Postal Service worker handling mail in October 2001 İLorenzo Ciniglio/Corbis Sygma Meanwhile, the Academies also got to work fulfilling another promise made in the letter: to convene groups of experts to identify -- and look for ways to counter -- the most dangerous threats facing the United States. They drafted more than 100 scientists, engineers, physicians, and national-security specialists to take part in the task, which led to a 440-page report -- Making the Nation Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism.

The report lists several steps that can be taken right away to counter terrorism using existing technologies. These include initiatives to secure nuclear material in the former Soviet bloc, boost vaccine supplies, improve ventilation systems in public buildings, and supply emergency personnel with the latest communication tools.

For the future, research is urgently needed to reduce vulnerabilities further, the report says. The nation has to create drugs for pathogens that are not currently treatable and develop sensors that can rapidly detect radiological, biological, or chemical materials. The blast- and fire-resistance of buildings should be improved as well. And power grids must be mapped in a manner that allows them to bypass damaged areas if they come under attack.

These and other research opportunities may go unrealized, however, unless the federal government formulates a strategy for pursuing them, the report says. This will be difficult given that the agencies that traditionally fund research are not necessarily the same agencies responsible for homeland security. To narrow this gap, the new Department of Homeland Security that was proposed by President Bush should have an undersecretary for science and technology. Homeland security officials should also be supported by an independent, nonprofit institute that could employ experts to analyze vulnerabilities in the nation's infrastructure.

Military personnel in hazmat suits get decontaminated after sweeping the Longworth and Rayburn House office buildings for anthrax on Oct. 24, 2001 İReuters NewMedia Inc./Corbis Although this report is the centerpiece of the Academies' counterterrorism activities, they have undertaken other studies and held workshops to seek ways to make the nation safer. For example, the Natural Disasters Roundtable met to discuss what emergency workers who deal with disasters could teach the country about responding to terrorist attacks. The Academies also established a Web site -- -- to provide firefighters, EMTs, and other rescue personnel with links to credible information resources on chemical and biological terrorism. The Transportation Research Board and the National Materials Advisory Board have been advising the new Transportation Security Administration on explosives-detection technologies. How the Internet performed on Sept. 11 was the focus of another study. And a report on deterring terrorism says threats against terrorists work but that other efforts, such as trying to turn foreign populations against terrorist organizations, are needed as well.

Last fall the Academies released Countering Agricultural Bioterrorism, a study that began before Sept. 11 but took on obviously greater importance after that day. It says that the country remains vulnerable to a bioterrorism attack on its crops and livestock and needs a more comprehensive plan to defend against it.

The Academies hosted a workshop to address the thorny issue of restrictions being placed on the publication of research findings in the name of national security. In a recent statement, the presidents of the National Academies said scientists should work closely with federal agencies to identify research that may be related to new security threats and to develop principles for researchers in those fields, but that the government should not vaguely categorize information as "sensitive but unclassified."    --Bill Kearney

A collection of the Academies reports in this area is accessible at Information on projects under way is available at

Making the Nation Safer. Committee on Science and Technology for Countering Terrorism, National Research Council (2002, 440 pp.; ISBN 0-309-08481-4; available from National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $43.95 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was co-chaired by Lewis M. Branscomb, emeritus professor of public policy and corporate management; and emeritus director of the science, technology, and public policy program, Center for Science and International Affairs, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.; and Richard D. Klausner, executive director of global health, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Seattle. The study was funded by the National Academies.

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Copyright 2002 by the National Academy of Sciences