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Making the Nation Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism
Science and Technology for Defending the Nation
While the advance of science and technology is one reason why terrorism has the potential to be catastrophic in the 21st century, science and technology are also critical tools for guarding the United States against that threat. Beyond its inherent strengths of immense size and wealth, high level of education, and political cohesion and values, another great comparative advantage of this nation is its scientific and technological prowess. The highly developed, diverse, and productive U.S. science-and-technology enterprise has proved its ability to serve the needs of the nation in a variety of ways: It supplied key military technology for conventional wars and the long Cold War, produced enormous improvements in the health and prosperity of its people, and addressed pressing societal needs such as protection of the environment. Historically, the science and engineering communities have enthusiastically contributed to these national goals, and the same level of energy and commitment will surely be devoted to meeting the vast array of challenges raised by terrorism. Experts from many fields, including physical, biological, and mathematical sciences, engineering, and the social and behavioral sciences, stand ready to create new knowledge that, in turn, creates new capabilities.
Scientists and engineers can put a powerful set of counterterrorism tools at our disposal. But whether, when, where, and how we use these tools will be far from obvious and will require careful thought and analysis. Technologies that protect us may well impose economic, social, and cultural costs that we might not be willing to bear. Sensors, monitors, and intelligence gathering may be intrusive in ways that clash with our values of individual rights and privacy. Protective technologies may be incompatible with the freedom of movement and open access to information that we cherish. In addition, the protection afforded by technology can be overestimated. For these reasons, a careful and realistic evaluation of the performance characteristics of any technology, coupled with systems and risk analyses to determine our level of need for it, is recommended throughout this report.
Science and technology are but one element in a broad array of potential approaches to reducing the threat of terrorism. Diplomacy, international relations, military actions, intelligence gathering, and other instruments of national policy all have critical roles to play. In fact, advanced technologies have long been key to the preeminence of the United States in military affairs. Today, the United States continues to rely on the products of science and engineering—precision munitions, stealth aircraft, and spy satellites, for example—to compensate for an opponent’s superior number of soldiers, favorable geographic access to the battlefield, or greater willingness to accept casualties and impose sacrifices on the citizenry. These military applications of science and technology will play an important role in our nation’s counterterrorism effort, as can be seen in the ongoing U.S. actions in Afghanistan. However, these applications are being