Science and technology can make the United States safer but not invulnerable to attack, said Lewis M. Branscomb, co-chair of the National Research Council's Committee on Science and Technology for Countering Terrorism.
In an MIT talk titled "Living with Catastrophic Terrorism," Branscomb said that science and technology, not the terrorists, created America's vulnerability. "We have a military that produces weapons of mass destruction and an economy where competition drives firms to maximize efficiency at the expense of resiliency," he said.
Branscomb summarized the highlights of a 400-page National Research Council (NRC) report, "Making America Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism." He also presented his own views on various issues treated only lightly in the report. His Sept. 20 talk was the second in the Brunel Lecture Series on Complex Systems sponsored by MIT's Engineering Systems Division.
Branscomb emphasized that reducing vulnerabilities is a highly complex systems problem. For example, 85 percent of critical infrastructures are in the private sector, and all depend on electricity. Since electricity is one of the most vulnerable areas, the NRC report warns that there is the danger of a severe domino effect, bringing down many other systems with it. "The Department of Homeland Security will initially be ill equipped to deal with this," he said.
Other potential targets covered in the report include health care and food systems, energy systems, communications and information systems, transportation systems and people, Branscomb noted. He also discussed likely terrorist weapons, including nuclear and radiological attacks; biological weapons used against human, agricultural and health systems; chemical weapons; and, as on Sept. 11, transportation systems used as both a target and a weapon.
Some of the biggest hurdles in fending off an attack are engineering problems, such as how to successfully manage a national network of sensors so a recommended action can be taken by someone who has neither an engineering nor a military background. Another area involves creating an adaptive power network that won't fail catastrophically when attacked.
Branscomb warned that when people are the targets, the main danger is loss of public confidence in public officials responsible for protecting them.
"The ultimate consequences will be that people will take the law into their own hands and democracy will become very fragile," he said.
The public policy of hardening the homeland is only a short-term measure, Branscomb declared. "Ultimately, we must create a foreign policy that reduces poverty while eliminating injustice, authoritarian rule and religious zealotry so there's less incentive to become terrorist."
Branscomb's presentation will be available on MIT World next week.
"Making America Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism" was funded by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine. The full report is here.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 2, 2002.