Enlisting science in terrorism fight

The National Academy of Sciences calls some of the nation's computer networks "extremely vulnerable to attack" and urges better use of existing resources.

3 min read
Calling some of the nation's computer networks "extremely vulnerable to attack," the National Academy of Sciences is issuing a new report urging the United States to better exploit its vast scientific resources if it hopes to fight terrorist threats.

The 362-page report, released Tuesday, lists an array of immediate anti-terror applications for existing technology and recommends urgent research projects to thwart terrorist threats. The study, which focuses on a variety of dangers, including those involving nuclear materials and biological agents, also suggests the creation of an independent homeland security institute to better coordinate and implement anti-terrorism efforts within the scientific and technology community.

For years, some people in and out of government have been worried about terrorist threats ranging from smallpox outbreaks to nuclear explosions, but such matters were often pushed to the side until the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, and last fall's anthrax scare. Since that time, security efforts have taken on new urgency and prompted actions such as the FBI's moves to dig deeper into the Internet.

The new report, called "Making the Nation Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism," urges scientists to immediately implement existing technology in order to better control nuclear weapons, create more vaccines, and protect shipping containers, ventilation systems and key elements of the power grid.

The report also suggests that scientists use their expertise to research and create an updated power grid, treatments for emerging pathogens, better emergency equipment, blast- and flame-retardant buildings, and new sensor and surveillance systems that can detect threats such as bioterror agents.

For example, researchers recommend that the FDA "act promptly to extend the current quality-control approach so that it might be used to effectively to deal with deliberate contamination of the food supply."

In addition, the report advises working to secure computing and telecommunications networks, so that breakdowns don't make matters worse in the event of an emergency. Researchers lamented that many emergency response systems are outdated and vulnerable to break-ins. "Attacks on information technology can amplify the impact of physical attacks and diminish the effectiveness of emergency responses," the researchers wrote.

Researchers also acknowledged that the government has little control over computer networks because so many are in the private sector's hands.

"The challenge for federal policy makers is to change the market dynamics by encouraging the private sector to pay more attention to security-related issues," researchers wrote.

The report, compiled by 118 of the nation's leading scientists and engineers, points out that the country already has much of the technology know-how needed to fight terrorist threats. However, it lacks the communications system and coordination to effectively implement some of the preventive measures.

"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," Richard D. Klausner, co-chair of the committee that wrote the report, said in a statement.

To that end, the report recommends creating an independent homeland security institute within the newly proposed Department of Homeland Security. It also calls for an undersecretary of technology in the department who could act as a coordinator between the National Academies, the National Institutes of Health and the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy. And it calls for the development of a long-term information technology research and development plan within the federal government.