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Support for Research, Education Must Remain as Priorities

By Rep. Sherwood Boehlert

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert
Rep. Sherwood Boehlert

I'm sure that everyone, like me, is still reeling, emotionally and intellectually, from the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In some ways, the passage of time has only made what happened seem more unreal and bewildering. But I think it's safe to say that in the coming months, our nation will turn to its colleges and universities for leadership, for ideas, for information, for education and training, and, if worst comes to worst, for soldiers.

Universities and colleges are inherently implicated in our response to September 11th. For while we say that the world changed on September 11th, it's really our knowledge of the world, our sense of the world, not the world itself, that changed on that fateful day. After all, terrorists were at work before the 11th, the Taliban was in power before the 11th, our security vulnerabilities existed before the 11th; it's our awareness of these that is different now. It is the ways in which we put that new awareness and knowledge to use that will change the actual world in the aftermath of the attacks.

I don't believe that these attacks signal a need for any fundamental change in the structure or nature of our academic institutions. I'm thinking here, particularly, of the openness of our colleges and universities - openness to both ideas and people. I've already seen some articles in The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education raising the specter of new restrictions on student visas, although I haven't heard much talk of this yet in the Congress.

Obviously, the US has to screen all visa applicants more thoroughly and needs to keep better track of those who enter our country, and, in particular, to crack down on those with expired visas. But we must not imperil the openness of our universities. Foreign students who remain here are absolutely critical elements of our science and technology workforce, and those who return home often increase the goodwill toward the US in their home countries. Some people may view limiting visas as "erring on the side of caution," but it's just as easy to argue that "caution" argues for openness, given how much we rely on students who come here from overseas.

Indeed, I believe we need to look critically at every proposal to curtail the general openness and freedom of American society in the wake of September 11. As a member of the House Intelligence Committee, I know that changes are needed, but those changes need to be targeted and limited.

What about changes in the R&D agenda? Do we need to redirect government or academic R&D in the wake of the attacks? Along with the scientific community, the House Science Committee has just begun to analyze that question. I know that the National Academy of Sciences and numerous other entities in Washington and around the country are also looking at how the scientific community should respond to the attacks, and we should be careful about rushing to conclusions. There are a few areas that need additional focus, although the general thrust of R&D need not change.

First among these appears to be computer security. While the terrorists involved in the September 11th events did not engage in cyber attacks - indeed they made full use of the intact Internet in carrying out everyday activities, like airline ticket purchases, on which their plot depended - our general vulnerability to terrorism should make us look again at our ability to protect the computer systems on which we all increasingly rely. We have a long way to go to make our systems secure. One reason for that is that computer security research, particularly on security for civilian systems, is an inadequately funded backwater in academia, government and industry. The computer science resources that attract the best computer scientists and engineers are simply elsewhere.

That situation has been exacerbated by battles between security agencies, on the one hand - particularly the secretive National Security Agency - and civilian R&D agencies, over who should be funding what kinds of research. The Science Committee will hold a hearing to explore these issues more fully. Our conclusions will be reflected in the Information Technology bill we were already drafting, which will authorize and improve coordination of computer science programs across the federal R&D agencies.

The federal government must also put additional resources into improving the technical capabilities of our law enforcement agencies. We need research that will enable us to gather better intelligence to foil terrorist plots and other crimes before they are implemented. Some of this work is already going on at the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) lab, which was doing a great deal of work with the Secret Service and FBI offices that were located in the World Trade Center complex. They head a federal, state, local government partnership called the New York Electronic Crimes Task Force. Their building was among those that collapsed, but thankfully, everyone in the Task Force got out safely. Within days of the tragedy, our NIJ center in Rome and other New York assets were forthcoming to get the Task Force up and running.

There are probably some narrower areas of research that need more attention, as well. For example, the Science Committee is working on a bill to authorize the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to fund research to assess and improve the security of drinking water systems. This is an idea that came to us from the water utilities, and the sewage authorities are interested in similar research on their facilities. Other research projects may emerge as we scrutinize what happened in New York and Washington. We plan to hold a hearing to examine what research is needed to better protect our physical infrastructure - buildings, power plants, the electric grid, etc.

In addition, the focus of some of our nation's research may shift. Existing research on identification techniques - especially biometrics: the use of iris patterns or heartbeat patterns or other aspects of the human body to ensure that people are not using false identities - must get a higher priority. Research in the social sciences and the humanities, including research on the causes of terrorism and the reaction to it, will certainly be more relevant than ever. Research that would help us prevent or respond to chemical, biological or nuclear attacks by terrorists will have renewed significance.

The September 11th attacks were not exactly high tech. The terrorists turned the instruments of everyday American life against us. We need careful analysis to piece together how the terrorists accomplished that, and to prevent its recurrence. But that is not the stuff of a wholly new federal or academic R&D agenda. The bulk of our R&D and education programs have not been directly affected by recent events. The good news is that federal R&D spending was doing pretty well in the Congressional appropriations process before September 11th, and that is unlikely to change.

Here's the picture for the National Science Foundation (NSF), for example. The fiscal 2001 spending level was about $4.4 billion, and the President recommended essentially level funding for 2002. But the House came in and provided more than $4.8 billion, and the Senate almost $4.7 billion. Now that the White House and Congressional leaders have tentatively agreed to raise overall federal spending for 2002, I expect NSF to end up with a sizable spending increase for the new fiscal year.

Of course, none of the R&D we conduct on security or anything else will matter, in the long-run, unless it helps train students in new fields. None of our R&D goals will be met unless we do a better job of preparing teachers and producing more capable students in science and math. Recent events have done nothing to deter the President and the Congress from carrying out their commitment to improve American education, particularly pre-college education in all fields. President Bush has made education one of his signature issues. Ongoing negotiations are continuing to settle on increased funding levels for education programs and to enact a major rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Progress is also being made on H.R. 1858, a bill targeted specifically at improving pre-college science and math education. That bill would create new NSF programs to encourage institutions of higher education and businesses to devote more of their energy and resources to improving pre-college science and math education. The bill would also create new federal scholarships to encourage top science, math and engineering majors to become science and math teachers. It passed the House without opposition, and is garnering bipartisan support in the Senate.

The events of September 11th have forced us to alter our agenda in ways large and small. But fundamentally, our nation's R&D and education needs remain pretty much what they were before the attacks, and, for now, at least, the resources available to meet those needs remain about the same, as well. What we need to do now is to draw on, and to shore up, the strengths of our major institutions, not just to prevent future attacks, but to ensure that our nation remains a beacon of freedom and openness and opportunity and innovation and prosperity. Those traits may make our nation a more appealing target for terrorists, but they're also what makes it worth defending.

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) is chair of the House Science Committee. The above article was adapted from a speech presented to SUNY's Council of Presidents, October 1, 2001.


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