Public Release: 

Report considers role of science in a world made vulnerable by terrorism

Scholars warn of impact on information systems, scientific research, and public health

American Association for the Advancement of Science

The nation is ill-prepared for a terrorist assault on its information systems, and lacks the public health structure necessary to address a major attack of bioterrorism, according to a report published recently by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

In Science and Technology in a Vulnerable World, a series of papers that characterize the role of science in responding to terrorism, Eugene H. Spafford, professor of computer science and philosophy at Purdue University, said that cost concerns and lack of sophistication have led both the public and private sector to cut corners in making their information systems secure. Another paper noted that physicians and other health-care workers have not been trained to recognize the symptoms of diseases such as anthrax and smallpox, and that many municipalities lack the public health infrastructures necessary to back up health care workers and to respond in the event of bioterrorism.

Several contributors to the report warned, however, of too extreme a response to perceived dangers, pointing out the potential damage to the research enterprise if the federal government decides to restrict the communication of scientific information and/or block the participation of foreign students in certain government-funded research projects.

"The danger of overreacting, I believe, is quite real, and in fact, I believe it is already happening," wrote Eugene B. Skolnikoff, professor of political science emeritus at MIT. "It is imperative that the universities understand what the issues are, how they believe they should respond to the issues, how far they should go in accepting certain restrictions, and how they should work with the government in working that out."

The report's authors noted that the scientists most obviously affected by the nation's new priorities are those whose work concerns the threats to national security identified by the government: threats to transportation, energy, infrastructure, and information technology systems, and weapons that pose biological, chemical, nuclear, and radiological dangers to the public. They also spoke, however, of how best to assess and communicate the risk of terrorism, and detailed problems in the public health and information technology systems that make them vulnerable in the event of attacks that target either human beings or the nation's technological infrastructure.

In his paper, "Public Health Preparedness," Donald A. Henderson, chairman of the Secretary for Health and Human Services' Council on Public Health Preparedness and former director of HHS's Office of Public Health Preparedness, noted that Congress had recently upped HHS funds for public health preparedness from $500 million in FY 2001 to $3 billion in FY2002; the department must now set priorities for how to spend the funds.

"We have been in the desert, praying for a little rain, and suddenly we are hit with a typhoon," Henderson wrote in his paper, "Public Health Preparedness." "It is indeed overwhelming."

The papers by Henderson and his fellow scholars were first presented at the AAAS 27th Annual Colloquium on Science and Technology Policy in April, 2002. Under normal circumstances, they would have been published as part of a larger yearbook at the end of the year, but the urgency of the situation has led the Association to move more quickly than usual on these papers.

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Anyone interested in ordering the report, schedule for release in early July, will find a form on the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program website, http://www.aaas.org/spp/rd/pubs.htm.

Founded in 1848, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has worked to advance science for human well-being through its projects, programs, and publications, in the areas of science policy, science education and international scientific cooperation. With over 134,000 members from 130 countries and 272 affiliated societies comprising more than 10 million individual members, AAAS is the world's largest federation of scientists. The association also publishes Science, an editorially independent, multidisciplinary, weekly peer-reviewed journal that ranks as the world's most prestigious scientific journals. AAAS administers EurekAlert! http://www.eurekalert.org, the online news service, featuring the latest discoveries in science and technology.

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