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DHS's New Schools of Thought

U. S. RESIDENTS EXPECT ANOTHER terrorist attack on domestic soil before the end of the decade, according to a survey by the National Center for Food Protection and Defense (NCFPD), one of six Centers of Excellence funded by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Of the 4,200 survey respondents, half expect terrorists to disrupt the power grid, release a toxic biological or chemical agent in a public place, or deliberately contaminate the food system.

Understanding how the public perceives risk is the first step in formulating strategies to counter those risks, says Detlof von Winterfeldt, Ph.D., director of the Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE), another DHS Center of Excellence. The center’s research has shown that the public worries about radiological exposure because it is invisible and tasteless, and they overestimate the ability of such an attack to spread disease or death. Therefore, the public would likely panic if a radiological attack were to occur in the United States, says von Winterfeldt. “We need to deal with the potential for large self-evacuations.”

Helping DHS address scenarios like these is the objective of six research centers that have been established since 2003 within selected universities. The centers have received DHS grants totaling more than $80 million for between three and five years of study. They study such diverse concerns as how to prevent intentional electrical outages, assess a port’s vulnerability, predict why people join terrorist groups, protect a workplace from the spread of infectious diseases, and design security into food processing and packaging.

The Homeland Security Act of 2002 transferred the activities of 22 U.S. federal agencies to the new department. It also required that the department develop a national homeland security strategy, with research and development as part of that strategy.

The DHS’s Science and Technology Directorate, through its Office of University Programs, was given the authority to establish federally funded research and development centers to tap the nation’s scientific knowledge and technological expertise. The centers would provide independent analysis of homeland security issues.

Broad research topics were laid out by the U.S. Congress in the enabling legislation. According to Laura Petinito, acting director of the Office of University Programs, other topics have evolved from presidential directives and Making the Nation Safer, a 2001 publication of the National Academy of Sciences. Based on these documents, a list of 14 research topics was established by the Office of University Programs.

As funds become available, the office prepares announcements of a pending research topic, outlining the problems and its challenges, says Petinito. Each announcement is sent to the academic community. Interested universities form alliances and compete for the grant. Submissions receive a three-tiered review by a team from academia, the private sector, and multiple government agencies. The proposals are evaluated based on their scientific and technical merit, mission relevance, and management effectiveness.

The Office of University Programs foresaw that this university-based approach would produce three tangible results: a broad research capability within the nation’s universities to address scientific and technological issues related to homeland security; a science and technology workforce dedicated to homeland security; and future generations of scientists and engineers whose intellectual pursuits would be aligned with homeland security and motivated by public service.

The hope is that the Centers of Excellence will “come up with interesting, innovative, unique ways to address challenges,” says Petinito.

DHS gives the centers latitude in their research plans and approaches. “They suggest the main issues that they are interested in [but they] are looking for original ideas that might be outside the Washington, D.C., box,” says Gary LaFree, Ph.D., director of the DHS-funded National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) centered at the University of Maryland (UMD). LaFree views the Centers of Excellence as “a magnet for picking out extraordinary talent in the specific areas DHS has designated.” At the same time, he adds, “we are working for a mission-oriented agency, and we want what we do to be relevant.”

Von Winterfeldt believes being able to put together multidisciplinary teams to work on an issue is an important aspect of what centers can do. Also, the centers have the flexibility to add or release researchers as a project unfolds. In CREATE’s first two years, says von Winterfeldt, the center “maintained perhaps 70 percent of the projects and swapped out 25 percent of the projects, as we evolved and formulated the issues and the problems.” That approach is unheard of in other research environments.

The goal of the research is to provide data to decision makers within DHS, who can then make choices based on available options. As the programs have progressed, von Winterfeldt and his colleagues have developed “horizontal networking with operational units in DHS, people on a senior level who need research and risk analysis,” he says. “That is the beauty of these research universities,” says Petinito. “They bring a lot to the table.”

Preparedness and Response

The newest DHS Center of Excellence was announced in December 2005. Johns Hopkins University (JHU) will take the lead in establishing the Center for the Study of Preparedness and Catastrophic Event Response (PACER).

“There is no more important issue for [DHS] than planning for and responding to potentially catastrophic events,” said DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, as he announced the appointment. “As we learned with [Hurricanes] Katrina and Rita, high-consequence events pose an enormous risk in terms of loss of life and potential economic damage and disruption.”

JHU was selected from among 34 respondents to a DHS call for proposals to study high-consequence event preparedness and response. Organization of the multidisciplinary center, based at JHU’s Mt. Washington campus, is typical of previously established DHS centers. Slated to receive $15 million over three years, PACER will involve JHU experts in such fields as physics, international studies, business, engineering, medicine, and public health.

Working with the JHU personnel will be more than 90 investigative researchers representing 20 organizations and academic institutions, including the American Red Cross, Brookings Institution, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Morgan State University, and Florida State Universities.

PACER will study how the nation can deter, prevent, prepare for, and respond to large-scale incidents and disasters. According to Gabe Kelen, Ph.D., chair of emergency medicine in the JHU School of Medicine and codirector of the new center, the researchers will first seek to establish the “scientific underpinnings” of their work and plan specific projects. For example, aspects of the research might develop computer-simulated global pandemics or learn how to best harness informal networks during a disaster, such as the churches that came together to aid Hurricane Katrina victims.

PACER will also interact with the University of Southern California (USC), the home of CREATE, the first institution to be named a DHS Center of Excellence, in November 2003. CREATE’s research is focused on developing computer models to analyze the risks, consequences, and economics of terrorism as well as to assess aspects of emergency response. The models are also used to evaluate a range of threats to optimize the nation’s investment in counterterrorism.

The CREATE consortium includes partnerships with New York University and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, plus researchers and experts from across the country. Now completing its second year of funding, the center’s researchers have written or contributed to six books, produced more than 100 research reports or project summaries, and developed assessment software, according to von Winterfeldt, who is also deputy dean of the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development.

The center completed three case studies in its first year. One looked at how terrorists might take down a regional electrical grid, causing outages that might last weeks. This study’s assessment traced the cascading effect and economic consequences to the region’s infrastructure, including transportation, the water supply, pumping stations, and communications.

A second case study analyzed the options available to defend commercial airliners against surface-to-air missile attacks, specifically man-portable aerial defense (MANPAD) weapons. According to von Winterfeldt, “We looked at the cost effectiveness of installing infrared jammers on commercial airliners.”

Initially, von Winterfeldt believed the cost of such a plan was prohibitive considering the small reduction in risk. However, he says, “It became clear that the economic ripple effects of a large MANPAD attack would be substantial.”

CREATE economists estimated that the effect on the airline industry would be similar to the aftermath of 9-11, costing the nation as much as $400 billion. “At that point,” says von Winterfeldt, “you start to see some cost effectiveness” to the countermeasures. According to its 2007 budget proposal, DHS allocated more than $1.6 million to build and test counter- MANPAD prototypes in 2005 and 2006, and it plans to continue testing into 2007.

A third study looked at scenarios depicting how terrorists might attack the Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors by contaminating them with a dirty bomb, a radiological dispersal device that combines a conventional explosive, such as dynamite, with radioactive material. The intent of such an attack would be to foster “havoc among the public by creating a large radioactive plume,” explains von Winterfeldt.

Researchers concluded that a dirty bomb would produce few health effects and deaths. However, the economic impact would be substantial since the two ports would have to be closed while they were being decontaminated—at a cost of about $20 billion a month.

Among its current projects, CREATE is helping DHS to develop a risk-based way to allocate the federal funds given to states and cities to secure their critical facilities. Specifically, these grants could be used to purchase equipment, such as cameras or barriers, train first responders, or ensure that communication systems are compatible, says von Winterfeldt. Researchers are taking a “bottom up” approach, he adds, identifying vulnerable local industries and structures before making recommendations.

Know the Enemy

UMD and its major partners are approaching terrorism from a social and behavioral sciences perspective. The research conducted by the START consortium has three objectives: to develop the tools necessary to improve the nation’s understanding of and response to terrorist threats, to examine the psychological effect of terrorism on society, and to strengthen the population’s resilience in the face of terrorism.

START involves major partners at the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of Colorado, the Monterey Institute of International Studies, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of South Carolina.

START’s research is carried out through three working groups. The first is looking at differences between historical and contemporary terrorist organizations and the basis for collusion, including al Qaeda and its network of global affiliates.

A second group focuses on understanding the terrorism pyramid, which consists of sympathizers and supporters at its lowest level, with persons willing to take risks for terrorist causes at the next level and recruiters needed to replace human losses at the upper end.

The third working group’s project scope has several objectives. First, researchers are mining scientific databases and literature to collect insights on what is known currently about perceptions of, preparations for, responses to, and recovery from terrorist attacks within the United States. Concurrently, the group is conducting original research on issues that are not well understood, such as communicating risks to the public and preparing households and communities for terrorist attacks. These researchers are particularly interested in gathering data on how diverse audiences react to and are affected by threats and preparedness efforts.

Since START’s inception in June 2005, major terrorist events, such as the Madrid and London bombings, have added to the center’s plate of research objectives, according to its director, LaFree, who also heads the criminology department at UMD. “We are thinking more about radicalization, why some groups in a population move toward a willingness to use violence,” he says, a concept that was not emphasized in the center’s original plans.

Recently, START appointed an advisory board composed of “end users, people who will hopefully be interested in the research we are producing,” says LaFree. He views this group as “a sounding board to make sure that what we are doing is relevant, that the best questions and approaches are being applied.” Participants include representatives from Lockheed Martin, the MITRE Corporation, the National Institute of Justice, and the U. S. Department of State. Tom Ridge, former secretary of DHS, is another member of START’s advisory board.

”We’re going to be delivering a lot of data that will eventually be available to assist the intelligence and research community,” LaFree says. For example, START’s global terrorism database “is probably seven times bigger than any other existing database,” he says, and that data will eventually be available to others. “We’d like to be the first place you hit when you Google the term,” says LaFree.

As a measure of the center’s outreach to the end user community, LaFree was contacted by the Oklahoma state legislature, which had received a request for funding from a terrorism institute in their state. Before the legislators were willing to allocate the funds, they wanted to be sure that START researchers would collaborate on this local project.

Animal House

In April 2004, DHS turned its attention to protecting the nation’s food supply and named two Centers of Excellence that would focus research efforts in that direction. First, Texas A&M University received funding to establish the National Center for Foreign Animal and Zoonotic Disease Defense (FAZD). In partnership with researchers from the University of Texas Medical Branch, the University of California at Davis, and the University of Southern California, as well as industry, government, and global organizations and laboratories, the FAZD center addresses deliberate or accidental threats to animal agriculture. Specific diseases being studied include foot-and-mouth disease and avian influenza.

“With the increasing threat of the H5N1 virus being introduced in the U.S. and the possibility of human to-human transfer, the FAZD center is moving to an action plan that links related research on the zoonotic element of the disease—the interaction between birds, environment, and man,” explains Neville Clarke, director of the FAZD center. While the center’s overall research has long-term objectives, says Clarke, “we want to take short-term actions that can make a difference in preventing, or protecting the U. S. against, this imminent threat.”

To meet the goals of its grant, FAZD expects to produce a robust database and models for making decisions, predicting needs, and testing outcomes. Researchers plan to use the targeted diseases to validate a general strategic approach that can be applied to any form of animal bioterrorism. An equally important goal is to identify gaps in the research base.

FAZD researchers developed a grid, which can be accessed through its Web site, that shows how the center’s products will coalesce with DHS priorities. The goal is to use the targeted diseases to validate a general strategic approach that can be applied with minor modification to the analysis and threat management of any form of animal bioterrorism.

The researchers are also examining prevention and detection strategies that focus, for example, on training first responders as well as evaluating options for monitoring borders and ports. Response and recovery methodologies examine options for managing outbreaks as well as for educating future leaders and international partners in risk assessment. Other research models look at postincident resumption of trade.

Food for Thought

Also in 2004, the University of Minnesota (UMN) became the lead institution for the National Center for Food Protection and Defense (NCFPD). Its goals address agrosecurity issues related to postharvest food protection. Simply put, the mission of this center is to advance the security and safety of the nation’s food supply through research, education, and outreach.

During the three-year grant cycle, NCFPD expects its research to establish best practices and attract new researchers to study questions on managing and responding to food contamination occurring both intentionally and naturally.

Michigan State University, North Dakota State University, the University of Wisconsin, Georgia Institute of Technology, and the University of Texas are major institutions leading this research.

The center’s laboratory, in conjunction with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and the Association of Food and Drug Officials, has received a second grant from the Food and Drug Administration. These funds will be used to establish a Web site that contains links for all state food laboratories, according to Francis Busta, Ph.D., professor emeritus of food microbiology at UMN and the center’s director. The site will provide an outlet for research generated by NCFPD and enable the state laboratories to share and compare methodologies should something happen.

The center has included a range of stakeholders as advisors, including collaborators from 21 other universities plus consultants and personnel from independent research facilities, health and agriculture agencies, professional organizations, and industry. “We have spent a great deal of effort to communicate and connect with the breadth of groups involved in the food chain,” says Busta. “We’re working very hard to build collaborative and cooperative efforts.”

An industry working group is composed of major companies involved in the food chain, including Wal Mart Stores, Inc., Keystone Foods, Land O’Lakes, Inc., Jack in the Box, Inc., and Kraft Foods. The group provides “guidance and direction on the center’s research agenda,” says its cochair, Joe Scimeca, director of corporate regulatory affairs for Cargill, Inc.

An especially valuable component of the center’s research from an industry perspective, says Scimeca, will be its benchmarking of industry practices, which will be compiled and the results shared anonymously with companies to help them determine appropriate levels of security.

If a company “is behind the curve, they need to know that,” says Scimeca. He believes the only way to manage the defense of the food supply “in a world of limited resources” is through risk analysis.

Nine NCFPD research teams are looking at risk from multiple perspectives. For example, risk communicators are developing best practices for disseminating risks to multiple audiences prior to, during, and after a potentially catastrophic food bioterrorism incident. Economists are assessing the potential effect of an intentional contamination on commerce and trade. A detection and diagnostics team has been tasked with developing methods of detecting biological and chemical agents in food products and testing foods in production and retail settings. Another team is focusing on food processing and packaging, looking into ways to reduce intentional contamination through security design, for example.

“We are not fooling ourselves by saying that we can remove all vulnerabilities,” says Busta. He feels, however, that the result of the research efforts might be to harden the system to the point where attacking the food supply will not be worth the effort. According to Busta, NCFPD’s research will lead to systems and methods that will help educate the industry.

To that end, a daylong conference held in April was sponsored by five multidisciplinary groups from UMN, representing such specialties as law, life sciences, food safety, and infectious-disease research. The event addressed the scientific, ethical, and legal questions surrounding food protection and defense. While federal regulation of the food supply was addressed, equal emphasis was placed on the costs, liability, and competitive concerns of industry.

Joining in the research on biological threats, Michigan State University (MSU) was named a DHS Center of Excellence in late 2005. Called the Center for Advancing Microbial Risk Assessment (CAMRA), this center is jointly funded by DHS and the Environmental Protection Agency, receiving $5 million from each for five years of study. Its mission is to provide policymakers and first responders with the information they need to protect citizens from biological threats.

The CAMRA consortium includes Carnegie Mellon University, Drexel University, Northern Arizona University, the University of Arizona, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Michigan.

MSU and its partners will also provide information that can help set decontamination goals by focusing on both technical as well as knowledge-management missions. Under the first mission, the researchers will develop models, tools, and information that can be used to understand health risks caused by the deliberate indoor or outdoor use of biological agents. The second mission tasks researchers to build a national network for information transfer about microbial risk assessment among universities, professionals, and communities.

“Bird flu has changed the perception of risk and infectious diseases,” says Joan Rose, Ph.D., the Homer Nowlin Chair in Water Research at MSU and the center’s codirector. During flu season, if someone is sick, should they come to work? If a traveler has paid for a cruise but is feeling sick, should they cancel? What should be a company’s policy on these questions?

Knowing how infectious diseases spread through the environment, into the population, and then back into the environment can help companies and government agencies make informed decisions, especially about organisms that can be used as weapons, according to Rose. Current CAMRA projects are “focused on the risk paradigm, trying to understand how we get exposed and what are the health outcomes.”

When studying exposure, the center is currently looking at ways microorganisms have been used as weapons and how they have been dispensed by aerosols on surfaces such as water, or food, or even boxes and letters. “We want to understand how organisms survive once they land on a surface,” says Rose.

A goal is to develop surrogate organisms representing various levels of resistance to surfaces that can be used to develop models and eventually products. Rose envisions a hand-held system that would allow users to plug in situational variables, such as relative humidity, building configuration, and air conditioning levels. In return, the user would receive data on such factors as whether an organism will spread, where to focus cleaning efforts, and whether to impose a quarantine.

To build such a model, researchers will look at data from recreational parks where people have gotten sick, for example, and look at the variables, such as wind conditions and the type of contaminant. Once a generic model is in place, says Rose, “we can then change it depending on the organism and the scenario.”

A second part of the current research is what the CAMRA researchers call “dose response,” or looking into the probability that, once a surface is contaminated and transferred to people, harm will occur. The variable in this scenario is the dose, says Rose. The CAMRA teams will be developing models that focus, for example, on sensitive populations in environments such as day-care centers and nursing homes.

While some deadly diseases, such as anthrax, are not contagious, most are, explains Rose. When a person becomes infected with a disease like smallpox, “they become a little incubator, then spread it around,” she says. That ripple effect can also be modeled.

A goal of the researchers will be to distill complex information down to the few variables that are critical to decision makers. An ancillary goal, then, will be to create a basis for scientific interchange among a diverse group of researchers, including microbiologists, veterinary scientists, mathematicians, and epidemiologists, then push that knowledge out for peer reviews and standard setting. Ultimately, the CAMRA deliverables will be available to those who deal directly with the risk.

To that end, CAMRA scientists are scheduled to participate in conferences sponsored by such groups as the Society for Risk Analysis, the American Waterworks Association, and the American Society for Microbiology. The group also hopes to interact with cities involved with the BioWatch Program, a DHS pilot project to detect the release of pathogens into the air and provide warning to the government and public-health community of a potential bioterror event.

Educating for Tomorrow

Despite their diverse research agendas, the DHS centers share a common interest in education. For example, NCFPD has a team of 47 academic and association educators developing in-person and virtual training materials, advanced courses, and interdisciplinary degrees on food protection and defense.

START’s education objectives are aimed at launching an undergraduate minor in terrorism studies, predoctoral and postdoctoral fellowships for scholars working on the dynamics of terrorism, an interdisciplinary graduate certificate in terrorism studies, and curricula for instructors wishing to incorporate lessons about terrorism into their courses.

CREATE has developed a new Masters of Science in systems safety and security, a cooperative venture between USC’s public policy and engineering departments, as well as short courses on related topics. This center also sponsors an internship program that places students in local homeland-security-related agencies.

Each center also depends on a cadre of graduate and postdoctoral research associates working in laboratories at partner universities to advance its research agenda. The center may receive only a portion of a noted professor’s time at a lab but have daily access to his or her students to help generate fundamental research.

“Graduate education and research is a major educational activity [at NCFPD] that is generating human capital,” says Busta. Von Winterfeldt of CREATE agrees: “The idea is to teach the next generation of bright people to be able to deal with these emerging terrorism issues.”

Also to that end, CAMRA intends to run a summer institute that will bring together students working with the center at labs around the country. According to Rose, the courses will help fill in gaps in understanding among the young researchers. “They may have engineering and computational skills, but they may not be able to look at an infectious disease model and understand it,” she says. The goal is to develop “a new group of scientists with a multidisciplinary education.”

The multidisciplinary approach to research at these universities has been an inspiration to their directors who are more used to dealing with academic silos than cross-functional teams. For example, researchers from most of the social and behavioral sciences are involved in the START center. “It’s amazing to have psychologists talking to sociologists, but it’s even more amazing to have sociologists talking to engineers and botanists,” says LaFree.

The centers themselves are also integrating their research through joint director meetings, integrated Web sites, and collaborative projects. Planning has begun on a joint conference for late 2006. And the directors are finding ways to leverage the research efforts of one center with another center’s objectives or with other DHS concerns.

For example, says Busta, “we recognize that what we are doing in food defense can be useful in natural catastrophes such as hurricanes or earthquakes and in natural infections like pandemic flu.”

“These are not challenges that one department or one university can solve on its own,” says Petinito of the DHS Office of University Programs. She views this “coordinated system of centers” as a way to leverage the synergies created among the researchers. “We are building a cadre of high-quality folks who understand the homeland security mission and challenges.”

Tom Ridge, at that time the director of DHS, underscored that point as he announced the opening of the NCFPD center in 2004. “At the DHS, we are relying on everyone in the academic community, but especially on our Centers of Excellence, to boost our efforts to develop an enduring national research capability in homeland protection,” he said. “It is the kind of cooperation and coordination that America expects. And it is providing the important security that all Americans deserve.”

Mary Alice Davidson heads a publishing consultancy based in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Formerly the director of communications for ASIS International, Davidson has written and edited numerous articles and books on security and management issues.