April 12, 2002

Security challenges underscore importance of materials research

The post September 11 terrorist threat environment has "created an intense and compelling set of concerns" and is challenging the scientific community to develop new countermeasures on "an accelerated timeframe," Deputy Director for Science and Technology Jeff Wadsworth told a plenary session of the Materials Research Society in San Francisco last week.

Wadsworth described the evolution of the Laboratory’s national security missions and called on scientists from the diverse disciplines that make up the materials science community to contribute to the effort to thwart terrorism.

"The war against terrorism is not new but has intensified significantly since September 11. The mission-driven agencies will be the major centers focusing on this war on terrorism," he said. "The science community will be vital in developing new technologies and also in providing honest evaluations about what is, and what is not, possible from scientific and technological viewpoints."

The events of last September underscore the importance of Materials Research Society (MRS) meetings as "a unique forum for exploring the boundaries and intersections of materials science, chemistry, physics, nanoscience, engineering, computing, earth sciences, and more recently, biology," Wadsworth said. "I am very proud to have been an MRS member for many years.

"I believe that as a result of the innovative spirit and multidisciplinary character of MRS, our community is ideally poised to have a significant impact on the way in which science and technology will help solve one of the most important and pressing issues of our time: the fight against terrorism and weapons of mass destruction," he said. "The events of September 11 dramatically changed the way in which we view the world around us. The challenges are enormous, and the science community has an opportunity, indeed it has a responsibility, to play a key role in helping minimize and, where possible, to eliminate this threat."

While the attacks of September 11 immediately brought terrorism to the forefront of public concern, Wadsworth pointed out terrorism, even in the United States, is not new and that national security labs such as Livermore have been working to counter terrorists "for many years."

"Livermore, Los Alamos and Sandia national labs have been at the forefront of the war against terrorism for at least a decade," he said. "As national security laboratories, our broad charter is to provide the U.S. government with the technology and expertise required to prevent the spread and use of weapons of mass destruction."

The result of this experience in counterterrorism was that the national labs were able to respond immediately in the wake of September 11 by deploying detection and sensing technologies and providing forensic expertise, notably following the distribution of letters containing anthrax.

Wadsworth said the Lab-developed micro-impulse radar (MIR) was used in the search for survivors in the ruins of the World Trade Center and the Hyperspectral Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (HIRIS), an airborne infrared detection system, was also used over ground zero to identify any harmful chemicals or gases that might have impaired rescue efforts.

The threats of principal concern in the wake of attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. include biological, chemical, conventional explosives as well as nuclear and radiological weapons and materials, he said. "Irrespective of the nature of the threat, the methodology for developing a defense against terrorism and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) requires a systematic and quite broad approach – there are no silver bullets."

While much remains to be done to meet current as well as evolving threats, the national labs have responded to September events by deploying proven technologies as well as those still under development, according to Wadsworth.

Examples include the biological aerosol sentry and information system (BASIS), a system developed by Livermore and Los Alamos to detect biological agents, which was deployed in Salt Lake City for the 2002 Winter Olympics and projects to inspect shipping containers.

Wadsworth said smaller, faster and cheaper detection systems will soon be enlisted in the war on terrorism, among them the automated pathogen detection system, an automated biological agent smoke alarm; the hand-held advanced nucleic analyzer, a portable instrument for rapidly analyzing samples now undergoing commercialization; and a deployable aerosol time-of-flight mass spectrometer used by the Florida Department of Health to screen mail.

Detection and sensing technologies used to combat the spread of chemical, nuclear and radiological threats also were covered in his presentation.

Coordinating a national counterterrorism effort is a political challenge, Wadsworth said. "Not surprisingly, the short-term reaction in the national counterterrorism scene is to want immediate solutions; and operational issues dominate long-term investments in the underpinning science and technology needed for advanced concepts."

Responsibilities for counterterrorism are spread across numerous federal agencies, he noted. "Central control is unclear, and up to now, counterterrorism has been no single agency’s first mission. The creation of the Office of Homeland Security is one attempt to provide clarification and leadership, but it will take time to create long-term order out of the current activities."

"The issue of agency ownership is of course important to the R&D community, because we need to know who has responsibility and resources to invest in new science and technology initiatives and ideas," Wadsworth said. "There is also the fact that some legislators and political leaders are hopeful that science investments are not in fact necessary because of the long-term implications of such investments. Rather, they hope that the use of existing science will be sufficient to allow the required technology developments. It is also difficult to prioritize the areas on which to work — this is because the present challenges represent choices amongst rare events with high consequences.

"I believe, however, that science not only has played, but will continue to play, a compelling role in the world of counterterrorism. The current desire for immediate technological solutions is quite understandable," he said. "But the need for investments in high-risk, high pay-off science projects will become apparent, and the need for fundamental, multidisciplinary work to underpin future counterterrorism activities will also become evident."

"The MRS is uniquely placed, because of its agile nature and intrinsically multidisciplinary foundation, to make major contributions," Wadsworth said in concluding his talk. "Sessions such as those held this week illustrate the leadership that will make the war against terrorism a successful one."