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Zeroing in on Security

By Nicholas Altiero

Recent events have dramatically changed the research environment in engineering.

The tragic events of September 11 have forced our nation to confront the fact that terrorism is a very real and daily threat to our security and our way of life. In the aftermath of those events and the subsequent anthrax contamination of the mail, government attention has been intensely focused on combating international and domestic terrorism and ensuring homeland security. The measures that are being taken are having a very profound effect on how
we do business in this country and on how we conduct our
daily lives.

One area that has been significantly affected by this intense focus on homeland security is engineering research. This has been evidenced by a rather dramatic shift in research funding priorities in recent months, with major new initiatives in such areas as counterterrorism, cyber security, and defense against weapons of mass destruction. Certainly, our colleges and universities will need to be major players in these important research initiatives, as well as other areas related to our national defense and security, but there is a danger that they will be less able to do so because of increasing government concern about dissemination of information and about the involvement of international students and faculty in research projects related to defense and “controlled technologies.” The problem is further compounded by the increased restrictions on travel by international students and faculty.

As I write this article in mid-December, two relevant reports out of Washington are drawing significant attention. The first is an announcement of the appointment of members to the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), co-chaired by presidential science advisor John Marburger and high-tech venture capitalist Floyd Kvamme, and the formation of PCAST subcommittees to focus on combating terrorism, energy efficiency, broadband technology, and federal research funding priorities. The second is a report that the U.S. State Department, in response to serious concerns raised by the research community, is developing proposed amendments to International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) that would exempt most unclassified university-based space research from export license requirements. These two developments highlight the changes that are affecting the type of research that our nation needs (and therefore funds) and the environment in which that research is conducted. Now, more than ever, it is critically important for those of us involved in university engineering research to pay close attention to decisions being made in our nation's capital and to make our views heard so that those decisions are guided by our collective wisdom.

This rapidly changing landscape for engineering research has led ASEE's Engineering Research Council to focus this year's annual ERC Workshop and Forum on the theme: “New Directions in Engineering Research: Research in Support of New National Defense and Security Strategies.” The ERC Work-shop and Forum will take place at the Arlington Hilton and Towers in Ar-lington, Va., on February 24-26.

This year's Workshop and Forum will be preceded by the biannual ERC Summit, an informal, open discussion of topics related to strategic issues for engineering research in universities and colleges. The workshop involves presentations and discussions about the day-to-day issues facing those with responsibilities for management of university-based engineering research. And the forum affords an opportunity to hear from and interact with leaders from virtually all of the federal research funding agencies, including NSF, NASA, NIH, Defense Department agencies, and the Department of Energy.

While the ERC events are intended to deal in broad terms with strategic research issues, research administration issues, and federal funding trends, respectively, the annual theme has afforded the opportunity to focus some of the attention on an area that the ERC deems to be of major and immediate significance. For example, themes of the recent past have been nanotechnology in 2001, information technology in 2000, and bioengineering and biotechnology in 1999. The theme this year was to have been energy, but September 11 and the aftermath has changed that. More information on the ERC summit, workshop and Forum may be found at


Nicholas Altiero is dean of the school of engineering at Tulane University
and chair of the Engineering Research Council at ASEE.
He can be reached by e-mail at

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