Science as Public Service

Homeland security requires a future in which a broader range of university researchers work with the government on projects that protect us all, writes Janet Napolitano.

March 21, 2011

Our nation has a long history of creating problem-solving partnerships between government and our research and development enterprise. Indeed, greater support for innovation is an important part of President Obama's strategy for economic growth and international competitiveness.

The largest and most prolific research and development partnerships have often involved our national security, with foundations in the military. In recent decades, this kind of collaboration has grown in support of emerging fields, like alternative energy and biomedical science. But as the threats to our nation evolve, partnerships between government, academe and industry need to move beyond areas where collaboration already is strong. A deeper, broader partnership on homeland security must be one of these areas.

The United States is no longer isolated by two oceans. And a technological revolution has made societies more interconnected than anyone thought possible. At the same time, small groups of people can exploit technology to injure and kill on a much broader scale than ever before. Indeed, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security was a response to these new-generation challenges – ones made so painfully clear on September 11th, 2001.

Today, our nation is more secure than it was before DHS was founded. And in the last two years, we have made considerable progress strengthening our defenses against terrorism, and forging new partnerships at home and overseas to protect our shared systems of trade, travel, and communication. We have improved our emergency preparedness and response capabilities, and enhanced the resilience of our communities and critical infrastructure.

Despite this progress, however, we have a ways to go to thoroughly integrate our nation’s homeland security functions and capabilities. And to do that, we need the best that science can offer. Here are three areas, in particular, that stand out:

Greater Aviation Security and Awareness

The United States has the largest aviation industry in the world, processing some 2 million passengers through 450 airports every day. We know that terrorists have repeatedly sought to use airplanes as a means to take innocent lives, and we know they continue to alter their tactics.

We therefore need to both address the current threats, and also employ technology and innovation to help us leap ahead of future threats. Better explosives detection is important, but, in fact, is just one layer of security in a multi-layered system that includes multiple tactics, both seen and unseen.

The heart of the challenge is to use technology to make travel and trade as secure and smooth as possible for passengers and for cargo. Technologies therefore have to be effective, but also fast, complementary to one another, and as non-intrusive as possible. And, of course, they must support our commitment to protect the privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties of our citizens.

Our goal is to create "the airport checkpoint of tomorrow" that reduces the need for physical searches and maximizes the likelihood that we will prevent another attack on aviation. But to imagine, design, test, procure, and – eventually – deploy this, we need new kinds of managerial, operational, and engineering expertise.

The 'Big Data' Challenge

A second homeland security challenge is likely familiar to many academics: research brings in reams of data, but what is essential is the ability to glean insight, and discern patterns and trends, from a mass of information. How, for example, can we improve our ability to identify the anomalies that could point to illicit or terrorist activity from millions – billions – of data points?

To the airline passengers we screen, add the data on more than 50,000 cargo containers arriving each day through hundreds of air, land, and sea ports. And add to this sea of "Big Data" the terabytes of information pouring in to the intelligence community about threats from abroad – more data each day than the entire text holdings of the Library of Congress.

Pulling actionable intelligence from this data requires the constant evolution of our information gathering, learning, and analytic capabilities. It requires software engineers, information systems designers, and communications and data security experts working together. It requires getting this right so that we can ensure that analysts, agents, screeners, and officers anywhere in the world can get the information they need securely, and in real time.

Securing Our Cyber Networks and Critical Infrastructure

Protecting our shared cyber networks and critical infrastructure also requires strong scientific and engineering partnerships. In the past couple years, we have hardened critical facilities, such as chemical plants and transportation hubs, and greatly improved our ability to detect and respond to a large-scale cyber attack. But we know there's more to be done.

For instance, making sure the industrial control systems that run our water treatment and power plants are safe from attack. Or finding ways to ensure that the distributed nature of cyberspace becomes a contributor to the resilience of the system, not a liability. Indeed, the multiplicity of disasters that recently hit Japan – an earthquake, a tsunami, and a nuclear crisis – illustrates vividly why resilience is so very basic, and so important.

Ninety percent of Americans live in an area where there is a moderate or high risk of natural disaster. We know we can do more to make homes and buildings more secure and resilient. We can speed the commercialization of innovations in the field of nanotechnology that can help put more resilient building materials on the market. Our scientific community can play a direct role in developing security solutions in these and other areas.

How Scientists Can Serve the Public at DHS

Since I became homeland security secretary, we have taken several significant steps. We recently issued a solicitation for research through our Science and Technology Directorate that creates incentives for academe and the private sector to propose novel ideas and approaches.

We are supporting the president’s commitment to strengthen education in the STEM fields by granting nearly 100 fellowships, scholarships, and internships to students in science, technology, engineering, and math every year. We just announced a new Loaned Executive program to bring private sector expertise into our leadership ranks on 6- to 12-month rotations, and we’re launching a new Cyber Workforce Initiative to help attract and then retain the very top cyber professionals available in the country.

I believe there are many scientists and engineers interested in working on scientific issues for the public benefit who, perhaps, have never considered the idea of government service. Maybe their impression is that technical career paths in government are not as appealing as they are in academe or the private sector.

Yet it’s not unusual for a lawyer, economist, or political scientist to spend some time working on a particular policy issue at a government agency. We therefore need to do a better job at making a similarly worthwhile and workable path for top scientists to serve the public interest, and to help make our nation more secure. In essence, we need a model where there is more scientific knowledge across government, and more knowledge of government and public policy in science and engineering communities.

We have tremendous scientific resources in this country. We lead the world in scientific and technological innovation. We must, therefore, engage our best scientific talent in support of our common security. By doing so, we can build on past success, amplify our current efforts, and greatly accelerate our future progress toward a more secure and resilient America.


Janet Napolitano is U.S. Homeland Security Secretary. This essay is based on her Compton Lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, delivered on March 14, 2011. View or read the complete lecture.


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