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
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
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
- Engage the broader community, including
- 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.