ASEE Prism Magazine  - November 2002
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- By Kenneth T. Walsh    

Autumn brought more than brisk temperatures and falling leaves to Washington. With midterm elections approaching, it also changed the nature of the political debate as national security suddenly re-emerged as the No. 1 issue.

After several months when the stock market slide, the return of the federal deficit, and corporate corruption gathered momentum as issues, the war on terrorism and President Bush's campaign against Saddam Hussein were again on the front burner. Bush took the lead by rattling his saber against Iraq and warning that an invasion could be imminent. Former Vice President Al Gore responded by harshly criticizing Bush's doctrine of pre-emptive war. Not to be outdone, Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle attacked Bush for allegedly politicizing the issue of domestic security—a charge Republican leaders proceeded to level against the Democrats.

But, with memories of the first anniversary of 9/11 still fresh, national security has become more than a campaign theme. It is also being increasingly recognized as one of the most serious and enduring policy questions facing America. And, ever so gradually, the leaders of Congress and the administration appear to be recognizing that science and technology can play a vital role in reducing the threat from what Bush calls "the evildoers."

For example, the seemingly inevitable creation of a new Department of Homeland Security will have important ramifications across the board. For one thing, over the years there probably will be a significant amount of new funds available for research into scientific and technological ways to combat terrorism.

Under Bush's proposal, the Department of Homeland Security would establish a series of laboratories modeled on the National Nuclear Security Administration labs that provided expertise on nuclear weapons design during the cold war The new labs would aim to develop new technologies for homeland security and maintain what U.S. officials call "a critical mass of scientific and engineering talent" to enhance homeland security systems.

Already, leaders in Ohio, Texas, New York, and other states are looking for ways to persuade national legislators to funnel federal money their way as they seek a share of the $3 billion likely to be earmarked for the initial phase of security-related research and development.

Researchers and educators will need to be more nimble than ever in figuring out how to participate in the government's evolving programs. "You'll see a larger investment from the federal government in security issues," says a spokesman for Rep. Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat who is a leading promoter of science and technology on Capitol Hill. "But you'll also have a new department with new procedures, and the academicians will have to learn those new procedures. There might be some growing pains."

In applying for grants, congressional sources warn, the modus operandi at the new department might be much different from those at the Departments of Energy or Defense. This could lead to frustration and anger on all sides.

Yet Congressman Holt, a physicist by training, argues that the national-security focus might encourage legislators to consider research "not as an ivory-tower, outside-the-mainstream endeavor but as something that's a necessary and patriotic endeavor," says Holt's spokesman.

"There's a huge role here for science that you might not normally think of in a military campaign," says Rep. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican and member of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security. "We need to be sure this department has the latest technology and scientific knowledge to bring to bear on the problem of terrorism. It's not something that can be addressed just by adding another 100,000 troops."And this means a need for more and better research in the nation's colleges and universities.

Overall, the new political environment may be producing a new consensus. "Science and technology is the key to homeland security, no matter what the final configuration for the new department is," says Todd Stewart, the Ohio State University official who supervises international and homeland security programs. "We need to make the same sort of commitment to science and technology that we did when we got the wake-up call with Sputnik." Sputnik of course was the Soviet satellite sent into orbit on Oct. 4, 1957, triggering the space race between the U.S.S.R. and the United States.

America won that race. And it may take a similar effort to achieve the same outcome in the war on terrorism.


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