Prism Magazine - February 2002
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On politics

Science to the Rescue

Since the attacks of September 11, America's political leaders have been taking a close look at how science and technology can help in the fight against terrorism. Many government officials are concluding that the creativity of our scientific community could be an invaluable weapon in this ongoing war.

“The war against terrorism is dominating everything,” says John Marburger III, the new director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “And that is interesting because there are many technology issues associated with fighting the war. Information technology is a very strong component to that—from intelligence to detection to monitoring immigration to data-mining to connectivity. Almost every aspect of life has some technical dimension.”

Marburger told the National Journal: “Terrorism is about disrupting normal life, and we rely on technical systems to transport people, to deliver information, electricity, food—and all of those systems are vulnerable to disruption. Efforts to reduce that vulnerability will also make those systems better, and we should be looking for terrorism solutions that have that dual aspect.”

Americans have turned to technology at other times of crisis, such as in the aftermath of the Soviet Union's detonation of an atomic bomb in September 1949. In January 1950, President Truman appointed the State Department's Paul Nitze to preside over a commission on national security policy in an effort to counter the threat. A key recommendation of Nitze's report, known as NSC-68, was to spend more money on technology to maintain the U.S. lead in the arms race. It worked. When the U.S.S.R. launched Sputnik, the first orbiting satellite, a half-century ago, President Eisenhower turned to technology again to help the United States win the space race. Over time, America came out on top.

Where nuclear science and space science were once emphasized, now, increasingly, it's science to combat bioterrror and chemical weapons. And Marburger says the National Academies of the United States, home of some of the world's most brilliant minds, will help assess the myriad ideas being generated on all fronts.

There are many ramifications. Some in Congress want to prohibit certain categories of foreigners from working in laboratories that handle dangerous microbes. President Bush wants to formulate an international code of ethical conduct for biological scientists. Another debate is whether the results of some research should remain secret, or at least unpublished, lest the information help terrorists design more weapons. Many scientists are concerned that such restrictions would impede the very research that might help combat biological agents and treat infectious diseases—without deterring terrorists at all. “Before we enact legislation requiring people to padlock their strain collections and classify their DNA sequences, we should ask the question about whom we are trying to keep the information from,” Stanford biology professor Steven M. Block told The New York Times recently. “What we'll probably wind up restricting is legitimate science without in any serious way restricting the ability to use this as a bioweapon.''

Many scientists prefer a voluntary approach—finding ways on their own to insure the ethical use of biotechnology rather than turning the task over to politicians. “We have to get scientific communities involved who have never been directly involved in arms control,” says Raymond A. Zilinskas, a biological weapons expert at the Monterey Institute of Internatonal Studies. He called for a meeting like one held in 1975 in California, where leading scientists voluntarily adopted guidelines aimed at controlling genetic engineering, which was a new technology at the time.

President Bush recognizes that America is facing a new kind of arms race, one in which innovative ways need to be found to track terrorists around the world and stop them from committing their heinous crimes. Technology, he says, will be an important asset.

Just as important, Bush argues that technology will be vital to America's success on the actual battlefield. “To win this war, we have to think differently,” Bush told students and faculty at The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., last December 11, which was the three-month anniversary of the terrorist attacks. “The enemy who appeared on September 11 seeks to evade our strength and constantly searches for our weaknesses. . .These past. . .months have shown that an innovative doctrine and high-tech weaponry can shape and then dominate an unconventional conflict. The brave men and women of our military are rewriting the rules of war with new technologies and old values like courage and honor. . .Our commanders are gaining a real-time picture of the entire battlefield, and are able to get targeting information from sensor to shooter almost instantly. . . And our special forces have the technology to call in precision air strikes.”

High tech can't solve all of our problems, of course. Intelligence specialists, for example have complained for years that the United States made a huge error in de-emphasizing human spies and relying too much on electronic surveillance. But technology will remain vital. Among the most promising developments: software that can quickly process a vast amount of information to monitor the movements of possible terrorists and their activities. The goal is to find patterns of behavior that will enable the good guys to break codes and find vital links within terrorist networks.

“The revolution in our military is only beginning,” Bush says, “and it promises to change the face of battle.”


Kenneth T. Walsh is chief White House correspondent
for U.S. News & World Report.
He can be reached by e-mail at