Bush aide: R&D low priority for security

IDG News Service

After successfully creating a new domestic security framework since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the federal government must tackle the bigger job of building on that framework and putting new security systems and procedures into place, according to a senior White House advisor on science and technology policy .

In doing so, however, the government should emphasize the use of existing technologies rather than plowing money into research and development of new technology to solve the domestic security problem, according to John Marburger, Science Advisor to President Bush and director of the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy .

His comments came in a speech Friday at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Marburger, speaking at a symposium entitled, “Global and Homeland Security: Science, Technology and the Role of the University,” charted the development of the U.S. government’s reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks, the creation of the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the first steps toward implementing new security measures.

Telling the audience of students and faculty that the process of creating the DHS was “worthy of a doctoral thesis,” Marburger said the implementation challenges that face the new department are daunting.

In addition to screening the 500 million people who cross international borders into the U.S. each year, the government will also need to find a way to inspect more than 11 million trucks and 100 nuclear plants, as well other components of the nation’s infrastructure.

Despite that fact, the challenges are more practical than scientific, Marburger said.

“There are people who make comparisons between homeland security and the Manhattan Project, but the challenges facing homeland security, for the most part, are not scientific challenges,” he said. The Manhattan Project was the secret government program that created the first nuclear bomb.

Instead, the government should focus on defining, designing and implementing security systems that use existing technology, he said.

Beefed-up efforts to screen airline passengers and the DHS’s aggressive schedule for using biometrics to screen individuals at points of entry to the U.S. are just two examples of effective implementations that take advantage of existing technologies and improved procedures, Marburger said. [See “GAO wary of biometrics for border control,” March 13, 2003.]

Nevertheless, there are areas in which there is a need for increased R&D, Marburger said.

Better technology to detect biological threats is desperately needed and biometric technology for identifying people could be improved to reduce the incidence of false positives and negatives, he said.

In assessing the government’s investments in R&D for domestic security, Marburger took a “follow the money” approach, saying that was a good way to identify the Bush administration’s priorities about particular aspects of domestic security.

Of the US$3.2 billion slated by the Bush administration for domestic security research and development in fiscal 2004, only around a third is slated for the new Department of Homeland Security, Marburger said. Ongoing research in other branches of the government will absorb much of the rest.

Of the approximately $1 billion for DHS research, around two-thirds will go into researching bioterrorism countermeasures and the rest will be spent in areas where “the technology is more mature,” he said.

Although the government’s investment in research and development is likely to grow in the coming years, the initial investment is appropriate, Marburger said.

“Is it balanced? It could be better. Is it enough? At this stage, yes,” he said.

Speaking to a diverse group of students, academics and industry leaders, Marburger said that universities are part of the nation’s critical infrastructure.

Like power plants and skyscrapers, universities could also be targets for terrorism, or places where terrorist organizations recruit new members or conceal their activities.

At the same time, universities such as MIT have been affected by the government’s attempts to shore up the domestic security following the Sept. 11 attacks.

Asked about delays in processing student visas and issues with the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), Marburger said the value of foreign students to the U.S. was recognized “at the top levels” of the Bush administration and that Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge was taking the problems with SEVIS “very seriously.”

Programs aimed at better identifying and tracking foreign students in the U.S. have raised the ire of institutions such as MIT, which recruit large numbers of non-U.S. undergraduate and graduate students to study and do research on their campuses.

Universities are valuable sources of new ideas and tools to fight terrorism, and the “intellectual community” should contribute ideas on how to best implement new procedures rather than automatically opposing them, according to Marburger.