PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - OCTOBER 2004 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 2
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Research: Protecting the Home Front

By Randolph Hall

UNIVERSITY RESEARCH HELPS KEEP US SAFE FROM THREATS FROM ABROAD.

Anyone who lived through the Cold War understands the fear that someday our country, and much of the world, could be destroyed by nuclear war. We endured this fear for some 40 years, surviving without a single nuclear weapon launched at an enemy, thanks in part to university research. Since September 11, we have again become a fearful country. And though the worries are not as calamitous as full-scale nuclear war, terrorism has made us contemplate a future of widespread destruction and massive loss of life. Universities and engineers have begun asking themselves: What can we do to make our homeland safer and more secure so that we no longer have reason to fear catastrophe?

At the University of Southern California (USC), we didn't have an answer until 2003. We knew that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) intended to enlist universities within a centers program but did not know their areas of interest. The Homeland Security Act of 2002 was not specific in this regard. Though it provided criteria for picking centers, it did not spell out their missions.

Last summer, DHS issued a call for "white papers" proposing a center to conduct risk-based economic analysis. The request was short and broad, hinting that DHS was looking for creative approaches for running a mission-focused center. It gave a short turn-around time, making it clear that DHS needed a university that could act quickly and build from its expertise.

Though "engineering" did not appear in that call, I realized that engineering, and USC in particular, had much to contribute. First, we had relevant experience in economic evaluation of disasters (albeit, natural disasters), risk assessment, system safety, and information technology—and we had experience in creating and managing large centers. Second, we had the capability to lead an interdisciplinary and national consortium, drawing experts from multiple regions and multiple universities. Third, we could offer an integrated set of educational programs, including graduate degrees via distance education and professional development courses. Last, we could link the elements through systems engineering, both in software creation and project management.

From this base, our team proceeded through a three-phase competition, eventually being picked in a head-to-head competition against three non-engineering schools in a site visit phase. From this experience, I realized that other engineering schools could be similarly successful in supporting DHS, both through the University Centers program and the more technologically focused HSARPA (Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency), as well as other DHS programs, provided that they take a few simple steps:

  • Collaborate and work as a team.

  • Let the problems drive the research agenda.

  • Engage the broader community, including students.

  • Emphasize the capabilities and values that have enabled universities to nurture creative research—including a free exchange of ideas.

  • Stay focused on the mission.

Randolph Hall is co-director and principal investigator for the Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE) at the University of Southern California.

 

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