Mobilise anti-terror expertise, RS says

April 23, 2004

The government is failing to harness the expertise of many academic scientists who could help in the fight against terrorism, the Royal Society has warned.

In a report published this week, the society calls for a £20 million-a-year centre to coordinate and commission research and development into detecting and decontaminating chemical and biological agents.

Herbert Huppert, the chair of the committee responsible for the report, said: "There are a lot of scientists in this country who are knowledgeable about matters such as dispersion of chemicals who haven't been called in by the government, but who are consulting regularly with US agencies such as Homeland Security."

Professor Huppert, who is the director of the Institute of Theoretical Geophysics at Cambridge University, said the government was under pressure to move fast on terrorism, but it needed to coordinate scientific input better. The centre would aim to better prepare the country for possible terrorist attacks, working to minimise the impact of any chemical or biological incident.

The report recommends the centre work with experts from across the academic community, as well as with industry and the research councils. It would also make use of international developments in this area. The centre would be guided by a panel of independent scientists, and would work with all relevant government departments and agencies.

A similar idea has already been put forward by the House of Commons science and technology committee, which called for a centre for home defence research in its report on the scientific response to terrorism, published last October.

Professor Huppert admitted that some members of the government had greeted the select committee's call for a centre with scepticism. But he said his committee had come up with "newer and broader" arguments for why it was needed.

The Royal Society also suggested that research proposals be vetted to prevent the potential misuse of information by terrorists, in a second report released earlier this week.

Under this controversial proposal, government and industrial funders of research would be required to take measures to filter out research proposals "where there is a tangible cause for concern in terms of harmful applications". But the society has drawn the line at vetting basic research proposals, which it said would prove too difficult and would provide a new layer of bureaucracy to constrain research.

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