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Securing the Homeland

Securing the Homeland
Through research and development, HBCUs are confident about competing for homeland security funds
By Ronald Roach

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 modern 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. To the extent that individual institutions can lead the research and development on technologies, those schools may spur the creation of new companies, as well as attract existing ones to locations near the campuses. Bristow sees his school potentially leading a wave of economic development in southwest Mississippi if it can establish a leading position on digital imaging research.

“We see homeland security as an opportunity where the old boy networks will matter less because so much of the technologies are new and no one institution has much of an advantage over the other,” Bristow says.


Making a Contribution

A number of HBCU officials talk enthusiastically about the potential of their schools “making a contribution” to the safety and security of American citizens in the post-Sept. 11 era. A handful of schools reported to have significant research capabilities have had about a decade and a half of experience with the Department of Defense and other defense-related agencies, as well as with the National Science Foundation and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to attract faculty and develop their research infrastructure. Florida A&M, Alcorn State, Jackson State University, Hampton University, Prairie View A&M University and North Carolina A&T State University are among those HBCUs that have joined research consortiums in homeland security and are seeking to compete for homeland security research funding.

Nevertheless, Black officials have publicly expressed the belief that Black businesses, institutions and communities are being neglected by the DHS. U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., has made it known that minorities should be given special consideration for grant and contract opportunities. Just having been appointed this past February, Thompson sits on the Select Committee on Homeland Security in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Our experience is that unless you create an identity for minority institutions and businesses then a significant part of the population will be overlooked,” Thompson said during a recent forum on homeland security in Baton Rouge, La.

Among the goals Thompson wants to see is that capable HBCUs gain designation as Homeland Security Centers of Excellence (HS-Centers). The distinction could go to as many as 10 universities. Management of the initiative comes under the Office of University Programs within the DHS science and technology directorate to establish university-based HS-Centers in accordance with the Homeland Security Act of 2002.

The purpose of the centers is to establish the designated schools as magnets for top scholars in homeland security-related disciplines. Currently, the department is seeking proposals for several HS-Centers. The initial round for choosing the first HS-Center will be concluded by Nov. 25, according to the DHS.

The initial request is for an HS-Center focused on risk-based modeling, with a particular emphasis on economics. The center will generate research to provide a better understanding of the impact and consequences of terrorism and to yield decision-makers with validated tools to evaluate countermeasures and response actions. The HS-Center will provide tools and expertise in modeling and simulation to support risk analysis, with the goal of developing predictive tools to assess vulnerabilities and potential responses to attacks to the nation’s infrastructure, according to officials.

Leveraging Strengths

Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss., may very well have the resources and faculty to establish itself as an HS-Center of Excellence. Aside from being located in the congressional district represented by Rep. Thompson, the school hosts the National Center of Biodefense Communications (NCBC), a strategic initiative that utilizes Internet-based communications for providing a national alert system on bioterror and other related threats to human and animal health in the United States. The center facilitates basic and applied research in biodefense and disaster preparedness, and training in risk communications strategies, according to officials.

Established this past summer with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the NCBC operates in a partnership that includes Prairie View A&M University, Southern University-Baton Rouge and Alabama A&M University. Dr. Felix Okojie, vice president for research development, support and federal relations, says the NCBC represents a key asset for Jackson State with regard to initiatives from the Homeland Security department.

The NCBC was established with a $347,000 USDA appropriation by Jackson State officials in the aftermath of Sept. 11 as an extension of the work conducted by the school’s Institute of Epidemidology and Health Services Research, according to Okojie. He explained that Jackson State officials sought the appropriation in a request to Congress just last year.

“We had been thinking about a national center prior to 9/11 since we were doing the epidemiology research through the institute. The center was a natural progression for us because we had the basic infrastructure in place,” Okojie says, noting that a half million-dollar epidemiology laboratory had been established at the institute.

“After 9/11, it made sense to expand the scope of the institute,” he adds.

Currently, the NCBC has funding proposals pending with both the Centers for Disease Control and the DHS. Okojie says Jackson State is not yet competing to become a HS-Center of Excellence, but expects to submit a proposal when a request is made for a center based on the institutional and research strengths the school has already cultivated. In recent years, Jackson State has established a positive reputation for its capacity to conduct health-related research with regard to minority and disadvantaged populations.

Dr. Phyllis Gray-Ray, FAMU’s vice president for research, says she expects the Tallahassee-based HBCU to compete for designation as a HS-Center of Excellence when an appropriate request is posted by the DHS. She cites FAMU’s prowess in pharmacy, engineering and basic science research among its core strengths. FAMU’s scientists and engineering professors already have an established record on Defense Department projects.

“We’re confident we can become a leading name in homeland security,” Gray-Ray says.

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