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Ogmius Newsletter

Research Highlight

The Challenges Facing Homeland Security S&T by Shali Mohleji

“As a Nation, we will emphasize science and technology applications that address catastrophic threats.  We will build on existing science and technology whenever possible.  We will embrace science and technology initiatives that can support the whole range of homeland security actors.”

The above passage comes from the National Vision outlined in The National Strategy for Homeland Security; a document ordered by the President and written by the Department of Homeland Security in efforts to create an overarching all-incident strategy for homeland security.

While seemingly straightforward at first glance, the passage presents several challenges for the Science and Technology (S&T) Research and Development (R&D) projects under the auspices of homeland security.

The ambiguity of language in the passage leads to the question what poses as a catastrophic threat.  With thousands of threats existing, prevention and mitigation efforts can realistically only focus on a select few.  Furthermore, without any metric to distinguish “catastrophic threats” from other threats, how are these threats differentiated from each other?  More so, among the catastrophic threats, what determines the magnitude of one threat posing a greater hazard than another?  These questions contribute to the challenges facing decision makers in prioritizing the different threats for federal funding and management.  What determines which projects are chosen for funding?  In theory, the criteria for project prioritization should be based on risk assessments of the greatest threats and vulnerabilities.  Yet are risk assessments the only criteria being used in prioritization or is there a political aspect involved?  Could politics be playing a role in prioritization of homeland security S&T R&D projects?

Building upon existing science and technology initially appears to be an efficient strategy for developing new R&D initiatives.  However, the challenge is in maintaining the balance between existing S&T initiatives and new applications, ensuring that the original initiatives are never overtaken by new ones.  For example, while the pursuit of bioterrorism countermeasures stemmed from public health research, a struggle for balance ensues with the increased focus and resources dedicated to bioterrorism research.  Is this trend validated by vulnerability assessments identifying bioterrorism as the greatest threat or is the nation more vulnerable to a natural pandemic, which is a topic of public health research currently being overtaken by bioterrorism research?

Furthermore, who is considered a homeland security actor?  The current administrative and congressional rhetoric suggests homeland security S&T initiatives should provide protection from a range of scientific-based threats including bioterrorism, natural pandemics, and natural disasters.  Yet do the policies follow the rhetoric and meet the challenge of implementing protection from these three threats?

These challenges have permeated into the homeland security policy process for S&T R&D and warrant new solutions to bring clarity and consistency to homeland security policies while also better allocating attention and resources.  My research strives to answer the questions associated with these challenges.  In order for prevention and mitigation efforts to prove worthwhile, we must make sure we are investing in the appropriate S&T R&D countermeasures based on the hazards that pose the greatest threats to the security of the homeland.

Shali Mohleji
Center for Science and Technology Policy Research
University of Colorado-Boulder