The New Defenders

An explosion of federal funding has Bay Area researchers at the forefront of America's counter-terrorism program. Will the money make us safer - or just make science a military secret?

Dr. Page Stoutland, deputy division leader of an area in the Livermore lab named R-Division, is very tall and thin and more easygoing than you might think for a man with his responsibility. Stoutland is in charge of projects having to do with chemical and biological national security programs, nuclear response activities, and the forensics of weapons of mass destruction.

Environmental monitoring -- particularly the detection of harmful pathogens such as anthrax -- is Stoutland's specialty. He started the project to develop a biodetection system before he left the Department of Energy's Chemical and Biological Non-Proliferation Program in 2000. Government agencies had been thinking seriously about bioterrorism since the Persian Gulf War, but even with the ability to direct research at a national laboratory, it's a long process to get from thinking about something to designing research, and then securing funding for the research, and then doing actual laboratory work that shows results.

"We knew that detection would be important," Stoutland explains. "The reason we have this is because we've been working on it for the last four years. We need to look at the next five years."

Page Stoutland took a particular interest in developing 
a detection system for weapons of bioterrorism.
Paolo Vescia
Page Stoutland took a particular interest in developing a detection system for weapons of bioterrorism.
Jim Marks led a group of UCSF researchers who 
discovered a drug that could be mass-produced to 
combat botulism.
Paolo Vescia
Jim Marks led a group of UCSF researchers who discovered a drug that could be mass-produced to combat botulism.

Already, scientists can analyze a sample for numerous bioterror agents within 30 minutes, but that requires getting to the infected area, grabbing a sample, and taking the sample to the lab. Biodetection devices need to be smaller, quicker, and sturdier, Stoutland says, so that they can be easily used by people who work in the streets and not in a laboratory.

"There's a real sense of urgency and relevance here," Stoutland says of the last year. "We've never had so many people working so long. The area around me hasn't stopped."

Stoutland travels across the country to Washington about three times a month to confer with colleagues, bosses, and Congress about the science of countering terrorist threats. "This country has neglected microbiology," he says. "It will become a sexier area [with the future emphasis] and more people will come into it."

University scientists have a big role to play, Stoutland adds, by advancing basic science and discovering new and better ways to manipulate genes. The end game, though, is to deliver products. "We're going to step up to whatever they want us to do," Stoutland says of his impending new role. "Stay tuned."

But even in the best-case scenario, there is a tension between open science and national defense. Some of the biggest issues in what has come to be known as homeland security center on the seemingly mundane, but scientifically vital, pursuit of academic publishing.

In the standard course of scientific progress, researchers, particularly those in academic settings, will spend years investigating the intricacies of a specific question -- and then achieve a breakthrough. They will write an article on the discovery for publication in the appropriate journal of authority on the matter, for review by scientific peers. If the discovery is confirmed by other researchers, the achievement becomes incorporated into a permanent body of knowledge, and over the course of time, scientists around the world draw upon the information to advance to the next stage, and then the next -- and so on.

Of course, open science allows other people -- including terrorists, and researchers willing to be paid by terrorists -- the same access to advanced scientific knowledge that scientists have. The defense establishment is, by nature, disposed to keep scientific information with national security implications secret, as was dramatically evidenced at the beginning of the Cold War, when nuclear physicists worked in near anonymity. In fact, early nuclear science gave birth to the Lawrence laboratories that are now moving to the center of counterterrorism research.

And the Cold War's worst nuclear experiments -- which killed people and tainted property with plutonium and other atomic poisons -- are precisely the reason that scientists who have concerns about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction can also call for scientific openness, particularly in fields like microbiology, whose leaders have always worked in collaboration, generally toward the goal of improving overall public health.

"NIH is now empowered to classify work, where they never were before," says Barbara Rosenberg, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Biological Arms Control Project. "They haven't done it, and I hope they never do.

"But the government is starting to say journal publishers should be more cautious about what they publish."

The debate about scientific publishing involves not just the advancement of science, but the furthering of scientific careers. In the "publish or perish" world of academia, career advancement is based, at least in part, on scientific results published in major academic journals. In short, if the government greatly restricts the publication of scientific results from government-funded counterterror research, it will also greatly restrict the career prospects of any young academic who participates.

The topic of potential restrictions on publishing is so heated that the National Academies of Sciences last week devoted a two-day symposium to the debate.

"If you're in a weapons lab and you get money to do academic research, that's part of the bargain," says Dr. William Barletta, who is coordinating a new "Science for Homeland Security" program at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, located on the hillside above the UC Berkeley campus. "They [the government] reserve the right to prior restraint.

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