Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Securing the Homeland

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Securing the Homeland

Article excerpt


As a relative newcomer to the physics department at Florida A&M University, Dr. Lewis E. Johnson has managed to establish a laboratory for his research on laser remote sensing. While funding from the U.S. Army, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has helped furnish and support the laboratory since 2001, Johnson believes that his work merits the sponsorship of the federal government's newest agency, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Laser remote sensing is a process where lasers mounted at a fixed point can be projected upward into the atmosphere or into an open environment believed to have contaminated air and provide scientists a reading of chemical agents in the air. Such technology could save lives in the event of a biological, chemical or nuclear weapon attack, Johnson says.

"Chemical sensing at a distance makes it possible to avoid sending hazardous materials teams into areas that may have deadly agents in the air, thus potentially saving lives," Johnson says.

After less than a year of operation spent largely melding numerous agencies into one organization, a consolidated DHS is set to become a major player in basic and applied science, and technology research. Last year, it became the largest addition to the U.S. government since the establishment of the modem Department of Defense in 1947. The new department has brought together 22 different agencies under four DHS directorates and has more than 180,000 employees.

This year, the U.S. Congress is expected to approve more than $1 billion in homeland security research and development funding for fiscal year 2004. Roughly $800 million would be allocated to the DHS' science and technology directorate, which works with universities and businesses to study and develop technologies, based on House and Senate proposals. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, total federal government spending on homeland security research and development in fiscal 2003 is $669 million.

"The threats to our homeland are many. We must constantly monitor these threats and assess our vulnerabilities to them; develop new or improved capabilities to counter chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, explosive and cyber threats; and mitigate the effects of terrorists attacks should they occur," according to Dr. Charles McQueary, the undersecretary for the DHS' science and technology directorate in a statement before a congressional committee.

For researchers like Johnson whose work has typically enjoyed the support of defense-related and scientific research agencies, homeland security will represent a new source of support that can be counted on to expand the scope of technology research. The DHS will be largely supporting research in deterrence of weapons of mass destruction, Internet and information security, telecommunications protection, infrastructure security, maritime defense, and emergency preparedness.

For some researchers and institutions, homeland security may nurture the growth of technologies whose implementation could spur economic development in the regions of the schools where innovative research is occurring.

That is the hope held out by Dr. Clinton Bristow, president of Alcorn State University in Alcorn, Miss. Bristow sees enormous potential in the work by Alcorn researchers on digital imaging technology. Digital imaging technology is expected to aid security personnel in the detection of hazardous materials in cargo and luggage, as well as aid computer-based identification and recognition of individuals by security systems.

"We have strengths in computer science that have enabled us to move forward on digital imaging," Bristow says.

For minority-serving institutions and schools not known as aggressive research entities, homeland security represents an opportunity for campuses to "get in on the ground floor" of emerging technologies and establishing themselves as leading players in those technologies, according to Bristow. …

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