Diego Union Tribune
February 28, 2005
Academics researching threats to U.S. security
Effort smaller than during Cold War, but more varied
By Toby Eckert
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON – Amid the grassy quads and colonnaded halls of the University of Maryland, criminologist Gary LaFree is getting ready to profile a deadly type of bad guy, the kind who is willing to strap on explosives and blow up himself and others.
LaFree will be working with 60 other researchers, stretching from his campus near the nation's capital to the University of California Los Angeles, trying to get a better understanding of the root causes of terrorism and what motivates its practitioners.
"We've got psychologists, sociologists, geographers, historians – very unusual in that sense, for academia," LaFree said of the collaborative effort.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, colleges and universities nationwide have added homeland security programs to their roster of academic concentrations. The efforts range from sophisticated research on biological weapons to nuts-and-bolts training for police officers and firefighters.
Some of the programs, such as the one being directed by LaFree, were conceived and funded by the Department of Homeland Security.
Many others, such as the San Diego Regional Network for Homeland Security at the University of California San Diego and San Diego State University, have been started by colleges and universities eager to tap research funds, contribute to the nation's counterterrorism effort and attract like-minded students.
"They come at it from all different perspectives," said Todd Stewart, who leads the National Academic Consortium for Homeland Security, which is based at Ohio State University and has 241 member campuses. "Some of the programs are brand new. Others have evolved from previously established programs in public safety or criminal justice."
Ohio State, for example, is creating an undergraduate degree program in security and intelligence analysis. The University of Tennessee School of Medicine plans to offer a program for students who want to learn specialized care for terrorism victims.
SDSU added an interdisciplinary master's degree in homeland security studies to its curriculum last year.
While the effort isn't on the same scale as the national academic response to the Cold War, when the federal government poured billions of dollars into education programs, some see parallels.
"This is much smaller," said Tobin Smith, senior federal relations officer for the Association of American Universities. "I think some of the expectations about the amount of research money that would be coming from the (Homeland Security Department) was overblown.
"Right now, a lot of the investment in research and development has been in getting things off the shelf, using existing technology and adapting it to homeland security use. It's not the longer-term knowledge creation, the basic science or applied science that we do."
Some researchers consider that a major shortcoming in the nation's counterterrorism strategy. The Federation of American Scientists sees a need for an initiative comparable to the National Defense Education Act, which Congress passed in 1958 to meet the challenge presented by the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik, the world's first manmade satellite.
Kay Howell, the federation's vice president, cited statistics that the FBI, CIA, Homeland Security and Defense departments have 7,693 jobs to fill, most requiring technology and data analysis skills. Meanwhile, the number of Americans pursuing science and engineering degrees has been declining for decades, she said.
There also is a critical shortage of FBI and CIA personnel with foreign language skills.
"They have a huge need for a well-trained work force. Science and technology, people with good critical thinking skills," Howell said. "From a national security perspective, there's a huge need to make sure that we're graduating students who can fill these jobs."
In an effort to train a cadre of counterterrorism professionals, the Homeland Security Department has awarded hundreds of full scholarships and stipends to college juniors, seniors and graduate students pursuing degrees in math, science and some social sciences.
They are interns at various federal facilities, including Energy Department labs and Homeland Security agencies, and must be willing to accept security-related job offers from the government after graduating.
Charles McQueary, Homeland Security undersecretary for science and technology, has described them as "the next generation of scientists and engineers dedicated to improving homeland security."
The department also has invested $57 million in four university-based "Homeland Security Centers of Excellence" and more are on the drawing board.
Each center brings together researchers from several campuses to focus on a particular field of study, such as University of Maryland's center for Behavioral and Social Research on Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism.
Other centers have been designated to study the economic consequences of terrorism, led by the University of Southern California; defending livestock against bioterrorism, led by Texas A&M University; and protecting the larger food supply from terrorists, led by the University of Minnesota.
More than a dozen universities are participating in the centers.
The department is planning another center to study preparedness for and responses to large-scale terrorist attacks and joining the Environmental Protection Agency in seeking proposals for research on biological agents that terrorists might use. The department tapped Stanford University this month to develop technology that will help analysts identify potential terrorist threats by combing through large amounts of data.
The department has turned to community colleges for more basic training.
Several, including Los Angles Harbor College, are teaching flight crews and pilots self-defense. Others have received funding to train 300,000 personnel to respond to attacks on the agriculture industry and to help companies protect their computers from viruses and other attacks.
Many colleges and universities have struck out on their own, not waiting for federal funding.
"From what I see, the universities that are interested in doing this are responding," said Stewart of the National Academic Consortium for Homeland Security. "Some are jumping on the bandwagon because they think there is a market opportunity (for students) there, and others because they've been involved in similar programs for a long time."
Some of the federal initiatives have generated controversy. Local opposition helped derail a bid by the University of California Davis to host a federal research lab that would have studied deadly viruses and bacteria such as anthrax. Similar concerns have been raised about a proposed lab at Boston University.
So far, though, the growing presence of Homeland Security programs on campuses appears to have stirred little of the concern that Defense Department programs did during the 1960s and 1970s, when opposition to the Vietnam War was strong.
"You know academics: We don't agree on much of anything and, certainly, we don't agree with all of Homeland Security's current policies," said Maryland's LaFree. "But they seem to be interested in original thinking, new ideas, new ways of looking at things.
"They really have encouraged us to do what we usually do, which is produce the highest-quality research that we can and be concerned about educating a new set of students who have some interest in this area."