Talk, the antidote to threat of terror

June 27, 2003

Scientists must share information if we are to bolster public defences against biological and chemical attacks, writes Herbert Huppert

The recent bombings in Saudi Arabia and Morocco and the carnage they left have underscored the very real threat of international terrorism.

With al-Qaida urging more suicide attacks and the government erecting "a ring of concrete" around the Houses of Parliament, people in pubs, in their living rooms and elsewhere are asking "could this happen to us?" and "how could we best cope if the worst happens?"

Accurately communicating the risk of terrorism to the public is important, especially regarding biological and chemical agents whose effects are not widely known. Studies have found that the more the public know about the risk of terrorism and the more the authorities treat them as a partner in its deterrence, the less likely they are to be prone to panic and the more they can contribute to search, rescue and support operations.

But we scientists should be mindful of the benefits of communication, too. Effective communication and sharing of information between academics and, indeed, with those working in industry is vital for bolstering our defences against a terrorist attack. To develop novel technologies that could further enhance our defences, scientists from disciplines that have not traditionally spoken to each other need to open up channels of communication. This has been brought home to me in my role as chair of the Royal Society's working group on the detection and decontamination of biological and chemical weapons.

Our project was launched to tackle the challenges of the type the US experienced after the anthrax attacks in late 2001. It deals with the detection of biological and chemical weapons and the decontamination of buildings after an attack on a town or city. This is important to get right because it allows people to get back to their normal lives as quickly as possible. Disruption and delays hand some sort of victory to the terrorist and stop people enjoying their full freedoms.

We need to improve on our efforts in this area. It took three months to decontaminate the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington DC after the anthrax attack, and because liquid chlorine dioxide was used in the process, paintings, furniture and computers were damaged and important data lost. The Brentwood post sorting office, also in Washington, is still closed more than a year and a half after the attack.

This is an area where no one discipline of science or technology has all the information. Rapid advances could come from a wide - even unexpected - range of sources. Some have speculated that detection systems for water pollution could be applied to the detection of biological or chemical agents or that developments in the detergent industry could be used to improve clean-up techniques.

The defence research community is well placed, but it does not have the monopoly on detection and decontamination information. It may be that researchers working for the water boards, for example, have findings that could help in the struggle against terrorism but are unaware of the fact.

This is why we are calling for evidence for our project from all areas of science, engineering, medicine and technology - from established subjects such as microbiology to emerging fields such as nanotechnology. We have also contacted companies such as Thames Water and Unilever for any information they might have on this issue.

As the threat from biological and chemical weapons looks like it will be with us for the long term, it is important that we continue to increase our levels of preparedness for an attack on civilians. Joined-up thinking and a commitment to sharing information are needed to ensure that the latest developments in science and technology can be harnessed to protect us.

Herbert Huppert is professor of theoretical geophysics at the University of Cambridge and chair of the Royal Society working group on the detection and decontamination of chemical and biological weapons. A copy of the working group's call for evidence is available at www.royalsoc.ac.uk/policy/Ddcall4evidence.htm

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