Campus & Community

NAS ‘terror report’ calls for action

4 min read

A new report by a National Academy of Sciences panel co-chaired by Harvard Emeritus Professor Lewis M. Branscomb calls for the United States to take immediate steps, such as better protection of nuclear weapons and materials, to reduce its vulnerability to terror attacks. The report also outlines urgent areas for future research.

The 382-page report, “Making the Nation Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism,” was drafted under the auspices of the National Research Council and was the subject of a news conference in Washington, D.C., on June 24.

Branscomb, Professor in Public Policy and Corporate Management on the Aetna Chair at the John F. Kennedy School of Government Emeritus, was one of several Harvard faculty members on the Committee on Science and Technology for Countering Terrorism, which drafted the report. Branscomb said the report is a blueprint for the government to follow in developing new responses to terror.

“The scientific and engineering community is aware that it can make a critical contribution to protecting the nation from catastrophic terrorism,” Branscomb said. “Our report gives the government a blueprint for using current technologies and creating new capabilities to reduce the likelihood of terrorist attacks and the severity of their consequences.”

Other Harvard faculty on the committee include School of Public Health Dean Barry Bloom; Ford Foundation Professor of Science and International Affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government Ashton Carter; Lucius N. Littauer Professor of Political Economy Emeritus Thomas C. Schelling; and Mallinckrodt Professor of Chemistry George M. Whitesides.

The report presents dozens of recommendations in nine main areas: nuclear and radiological threats, human and agricultural health systems, toxic chemicals and explosive materials, information technology, energy systems, transportation systems, cities and fixed infrastructure, the response of people to terrorism, and complex and interdependent systems.

Among the many recommendations, the committee highlighted seven for immediate action and seven more that require urgent research.

They urged immediately improvement in the control and protection of nuclear weapons and material, ensuring adequate supply and distribution of vaccines, and increasing security for transportation systems, especially shipping containers and transport of toxic or flammable materials. They also called for increased security for energy systems, improved effectiveness of air ventilation systems, improved communications for emergency response personnel, and the selection of trusted spokespeople to knowledgeably talk to the public in the event of an attack.

The areas identified as urgent research needs were developing vaccines and treatments for currently hard-to-treat and incurable illnesses, developing a flexible and adaptive power grid, enhancing computer security against cyber-attacks, developing better technology for emergency personnel, and advancing engineering standards for blast-resistant and fire-resistant buildings. The report also suggested developing sensor and surveillance systems for a wide range of potential applications and creating new methods and standards for air filtration and decontamination to protect against both chemical and biological contaminants.

Branscomb said new technology, where possible, should be rooted in existing research and be “dual-use” so it can enhance existing services and systems even if another terrorism attack never materializes.

“In many case it will do two jobs at once,” Branscomb said.

In addition to specific technical recommendations, the report urges creation of a new Homeland Security Institute whose role it will be to evaluate critical systems for weaknesses and to test responses intended to fix vulnerabilities.

While, according to Kennedy School Professor Ashton Carter, science and technology can’t have all the answers to the terrorist threat, seeking scientific and technical solutions both plays to a national strength and could help head off more onerous measures that would be unpopular.

“Science and technology provides alternatives to more draconian steps that none of us wants,” Carter said. “Science and technology is something we’re good at as a nation and in many ways can allow us to live the kind of life we want and still be safe.”