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One Lab’s Mission: Resilience Research

About 15 miles north of Boston, at one corner of Northeastern University’s satellite campus, there is a three-floor, 70,000- square-foot lab space where researchers from the public and private sectors collaborate with academia to improve homeland security. Called the George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security, it was established in September 2011 with a $12 million endowment from its namesake, a graduate of the university, who wanted to facilitate research into solutions that could make U.S. critical infrastructure more resilient.

The facility includes collaborative meeting spaces, a reinforced structural testing laboratory, and secure areas that meet Department of Defense security clearance standards. Private companies can also rent out lab space in the building.

Northeastern University faculty, researchers, and students—from first-year undergraduates to Ph.D. candidates—can access portions of the building to attend classes, contribute to projects, or conduct research. Industry security organizations can apply to rent out lab space in the building.

The institute also hosts meetings of government entities, such as the U.S. Coast Guard or state emergency management agencies. This helps increase the mutually beneficial bond between researchers and practitioners, says Peter Boynton, who codirects the Institute along with Stephen Flynn.

At the institute, “Security is…broadly defined as engaging civil society along with traditional security measures. Our definition of security includes energy security, economic security, and structural security—all within the realm of resilience,” says Boynton.

For example, the Structural Testing of Resilient Sustainable Systems Lab, or STReSS Lab, is a 4,000-square-foot research facility. A four-foot-thick, reinforced concrete floor is equipped with 416 tie-down anchors that can each withstand 200,000 pounds of force. The space is used to construct full-scale buildings and bridges and push them to failure, says Jerome Hajjar, Ph.D., director of the STReSS lab.

Hajjar says he focuses most of his research on resilience—developing structural systems that can bounce back quickly after an extreme event. “Most structures are designed now to have little damage in light events, reparable structural damage in moderate events, and significant damage in major events—so significant that the buildings might have to be condemned,” Hajjar tells Security Management. “This is an issue of cost effectiveness, ostensibly. We’re trying to develop cost-effective methods that allow the structures to bounce back quite quickly after the event…rather than being condemned.”

The focus on resilience is not a new approach to homeland security. In 2006, the Critical Infrastructure Task Force, which was appointed by the Homeland Security Advisory Council, initiated a public policy debate, arguing that the government’s critical infrastructure policies were focused too much on protecting assets from terrorist attacks and not focused enough on improving the resilience of assets against a variety of threats.

Since then, homeland defense policy has evolved—to an extent—to support efforts of improving critical infrastructure. The Office of Infrastructure Protection within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has created a resilience index to be applied to assets, and the DHS Science and Technology Directorate supports resilience-related research. However, there is little direct government support for private sector organizations to implement resilience-oriented measures, according to a 2012 report.

The leaders at the Kostas Institute want to further shift the focus of homeland security solutions from one of pinpointing threats to one of developing and enhancing adaptability.

“The overarching goal is to ensure the continuity of the critical functions and services that these systems provide, versus a focus on the protection of assets,” Flynn explains. “It’s a pivot away from the whack-a-mole effort to identify the threat and threatened and muster a protective measure against that. It steps back and looks at the critical systems we have within our society and how they can manage the full range of risk, from man-made, like terrorism, to accidental, like the kind of disruption that we saw with Hurricane Sandy.”

This can be done by first identifying the critical systems that are needed, such as security, transportation, communications, and health. For each component, researchers must figure out how to make those systems better able to adapt to, respond to, and recover from the hazards that may confront them.

“We have to be focused on first understanding these systems and then designing into them the ability to better withstand the risk that’s likely to confront them,” Flynn explains. “We must understand the hazard, testing things [until they] break, and reverse engineering how we can design them so they can take that punch and not fail. Things do fail, and that shock can be overwhelming. The key is, how do we recover the system and the essential function as quickly as possible?”

Flynn compares it to the response to cybersecurity threats. The traditional security focus has been heavily adversary-centric, focusing on who presents a threat and how they can be kept from causing harm. On the other hand, those in the cybersecurity world are concerned about hackers, but they don’t try to understand them and prevent them from hacking, Flynn explains.

Instead, they try to understand the Internet and its weaknesses, which helps them develop sustainable strategies to stop cyberattacks. This approach should be brought into the physical security realm, and that’s what the Kostas Institute is trying to do, Flynn says.

Although Hajjar and his team primarily work through grants, he says there are a variety of elaborate partnerships and projects planned for the Kostas Institute in the future.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity for everyone involved,” Hajjar says. “The research we’re doing here at Northeastern is highly relevant, and through these kinds of partnerships we can have outstanding use-inspired research that meets the needs of the federal government, the needs of the industry, and vice versa.”

The Kostas Institute differs from similar research universities in that the program was made possible through a private donor instead of a federal grant, Flynn says. The impetus of the institute to support homeland security was a conscious decision made possible by the investment, he explains.

“Most academia got involved [in homeland security] when they received grants from the U.S. government to be a part of the effort,” Flynn says. The Kostas Institute, on the other hand, was funded with no strings attached, and it’s up to the leadership to uphold the mission of bringing together government practitioners, industry developers, and academic researchers, he notes.

Boynton and Flynn agree that the Kostas Institute should play “an honest broker role” in encouraging public, private, and academic collaboration. Often, private businesses are most focused on the continuity of business and making a profit, while public organizations are more concerned about protecting critical infrastructure, no matter the cost. Flynn explains it’s the Kostas Institute’s mission to bring these two sectors together to find a resilient security solution that ensures that businesses can continue running. Convening the public, private, and academic sectors tends to bring “a privilege of neutrality” to the project that is often absent when one sector addresses a project alone.

“We’re looking for the path by which we can collaborate, versus the one that puts us at security versus profitability,” according to Flynn. “We’re all focused on the same mission, which is ensuring that if something is critical, that it’s less vulnerable to disruption and more rapidly able to recover should it be disrupted.”

Companies are approaching the institute and asking how they can collaborate on projects with academic researchers. One corporation that sought out the benefits of an academic collaboration was the Rogers Corporation, a special materials company that supports innovation in critical infrastructure. “They were not just looking for a landlord, they were looking for a deep research partnership between a major research university—Northeastern—and their company,” according to Boynton.

Their plans for collaboration evolved into the Rogers Innovation Center. Announced this summer, the center will consist of 4,000 square feet of lab space, which will be home to 20 Ph.D. researchers and business, development, and strategy experts. Rogers also provided funding for a handful of Northeastern faculty to relocate from the main Boston campus to the satellite campus to collocate research. Two teams of researchers from Rogers will collocate at the innovation center as well.

Bob Daigle, a senior vice president and the chief technology officer for Rogers Corporation, tells Security Management that Northeastern University was selected as the site of the innovation center because of its commitment to collaborating with industry. The goal of the innovation center is to create and acquire new technology through the development of unique materials-based solutions, Daigle says. Working with cutting-edge technology requires a strong fundamental understanding of materials, and collaborating with Northeastern will provide that knowledge, he says.

“We believe this model for university and industry collaboration should result in more research that's focused in areas that can have real impact in the world and reduce the time it takes for new emerging technology to be commercialized,” Daigle says. The Rogers Innovation Center is set to open this month.

Collaboration at the Kostas Institute is not just in the form of projects, Flynn says. To make the collaboration model more sustainable and effective both inside and outside the institute, leaders have reached out to national and local organizations to train and brainstorm together at a variety of events they host each year. The Kostas Institute supports a model for direct participation by government partners in research projects, and it supports academia’s involvement in government efforts, such as training, as the academic interaction during government training sessions adds a unique component, Boynton says.

Flynn says he hopes these kinds of workshops and roundtable discussions will form beneficial, lasting bonds between industry, academic, and government professionals, and that this collaboration will become more common throughout the homeland security environment.