By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
“No one was supposed to know about it,” UCB mathematics professor Martin Walter told the Weekly. “The only way you found out he was coming was through the [school] underground.”
The science that will emerge from the dozen new DHS research centers will likely be more of the same unsexy-sounding discoveries that come out of America’s non-DHS national labs — screening methodologies to identify dirty-bomb debris, airborne-particulate analysis, or synthetic aperture radar that will better help drones locate tall men standing in robes. Indeed, to the extent that any of us hears about government research, it’s usually when the 6 o’clock news carries jokey stories about the recent Pentagon-sponsored robot-vehicle race from L.A. to Las Vegas, or a passing item about the Army blowing up willed cadavers with land mines to make a better boot.
Even when such science is filtered through the simian chatter of Action News anchors, however, American consumers intuit that at least some of the nascent technology will trickle down into their cars and TV remotes. They can also assume that, through the miracle of “technology transfer,” tax-funded inventions to emerge from the DHS Centers of Excellence are likely to reap profits for private corporations.
“Homeland Security has been a bonanza for science,” says professor David Hounshell, a technology historian at Carnegie Mellon University. “Immediately after 9/11, people saw these enormous opportunities — if the game was played just right, they could sell Washington these programs that would ‘solve the problem’ of terrorism through technology. That’s very typical because when a major research initiative is announced, researchers start a major repackaging of existing research to get on the gravy train.”
These are perilous times not only for higher education but also for scientific research and development. The level of federal funding for R&D practically flattened in fiscal year 2004, except for three agencies: DHS, the Defense Department and the National Institutes for Health. (NIH’s budget increased primarily to expand its terror-related anthrax research.) This trio accounted for 93 percent of the $9.5 billion increase over 2003’s R&D budget, clearly making them the places to be for a scientist seeking government money.
At DHS, the relationship between government and the private sector is no back-street romance, but a passionate telenovella played out in conference rooms, seminars and press releases. The Homeland Security Advisory Council, for example, is chaired by UBS Paine Webber chief executive officer Joseph Grano Jr. and “staffed” with the CEOs and directors of Lockheed Martin, Dow Chemical, Procter & Gamble, Eli Lilly and Conoco Phillips, to name a few corporate parties interested in fighting terrorism.
“Pharmaceutical companies can’t make money off finding a cure for malaria,” Georgia Tech’s Gusterson told the Weekly, explaining why industry never seems to produce the science the public really needs. “But they can selling Viagra to rich white men who can’t get it up.” And if the government showers tax dollars on the start-up research, so much the better.
Later this year USC’s CREATE program, funded by DHS, will move into the new Tudor Engineering Hall and will offer a master’s degree in systems, safety and security. As senior associate dean for research, Randolph Hall is responsible for technology transfer at the university’s engineering school. Still, Hall, who is CREATE’s co-director, says that the facility will not be marketing technology.
“Our role is to access vulnerability and consequences of terrorism by assessing initial risks, potential targets, loss of life and property damage. The software tools for risk assessment we’ll develop will be freely distributed to governmental markets. We’re not in the business of creating sensors.”
Hall, in fact, says the $12 million that CREATE has received is not a massive amount of money, and indeed it isn’t, compared to the Lotto jackpot received by Carnegie Mellon University, which David Hounshell estimates has received upward of $100 million in homeland-security-related funding.
“The computer-sciences department alone received $35 million almost immediately after 9/11,” Hounshell told the Weekly.“I think a lot of it has to do with Tom Ridge’s previous relationship with us. When he was governor of Pennsylvania he channeled a lot of money to Carnegie Mellon. It’s natural that some money would be channeled here now.”
American research has responded to five major traumas during the last 90 years — the sinking of the Lusitania, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Soviet Sputnik launch, the foreign-oil embargoes of the 1970s, and 9/11, Hounshell wrote in a 2003 essay published last year in the journal History and Technology. Each of these sudden shocks was a windfall to science because they triggered massive federal funding of research; but he also warns that these events conjure “opportunists” with private-enterprise or political agendas.
UC Berkeley’s Laura Nader has also written of the Cold War spending spree that followed the Sputnik launch — research that tapped fellow anthropologists to work on nation-building and counterinsurgency projects in Latin America and Southeast Asia with names like Camelot, Simpatico and Colony. One laudable response to Sputnikwas the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which, among other things, appropriated federal funds for universities to increase foreign-language and “area studies” programs — programs that would enable Americans to understand and interact with parts of the world with which they traditionally had little contact.
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