Researchers join war on terror

January 4, 2002

Universities on both sides of the Atlantic are to play a central role in the battle against terrorism as governments prepare to release extra money for research into bioterrorism and related areas.

The United States Congress, reacting to the anthrax attacks launched through the US mail service, voted to increase the basic research budget of the Department of Defense by about 5 per cent. Defence department grants are the prime source of government funding for university research into fields including science and engineering.

The European Commission has launched a stocktaking exercise into the European Union's expertise in countering chemical, biological and nuclear attacks from terrorists. This is expected to lead to large numbers of research contracts for universities in member states. When they meet in Brussels on March 11, research ministers will be presented with a report recommending studies to improve Europe's ability to deal with biological and chemical terrorism.

Just before Christmas, US lawmakers agreed to award $85 million (£59 million) to the National Institutes of Health to support research related to bioterrorism, the first of a new round of grants being rushed into such studies. They also speeded up the usually time-consuming review of grant proposals for bioterrorism research. The NIH budget is expected to be increased by 15 per cent, to $23 billion. President George W. Bush has proposed spending $1.5 billion on bioterrorism research alone.

Bioterrorism research on university campuses has been limited, mainly because of the high cost of building laboratories that can safely contain highly contagious diseases. The University of Alabama has already received $4.3 million to begin testing an anthrax vaccine, and the University of Texas has received funding for a secure laboratory, only the third in the US. The other two are controlled by the military and the Centers for Disease Control. Construction is scheduled to begin this month.

US universities also expect more money to study computer security and forestall potential disruptions by terrorists of computer networks that run telecommunications, electrical power and financial services systems. Dartmouth College has already received $21 million for its new Institute for Security Technology Studies.

But William Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering, urged Congress to do a better job of coordinating research in this area. "We have virtually no research base on which to build secure systems and only a tiny cadre of academic, long-term basic researchers who are thinking deeply about these problems."

EU research ministers will be examining the imminent Sixth Framework Programme, the work of the EU's Joint Research Centre and budgets held by member states to identify ways of funding this work. Last month they added civil protection, especially in relation to biological attacks, to the priority list for Framework programme funding.

EU research commissioner Philippe Busquin said that the establishment of European Research Area networks would help anti-terrorism research by improving the exchange of information among researchers. He said: "It enhances efficiency by helping to pool research efforts."

The expert group, drawn from EU research and defence ministries, has been told to "draw up an inventory of research activities in progress; examine how these activities can best be mobilised and coordinated; and identify what gaps there are and what additional research is needed in the short and long term".

It is probable that studies will focus on the development of tools for early detection and diagnosis; surveillance of biological or chemical agents used in terrorist attacks; the development of rapid production and distribution processes for new vaccines against diseases that could be spread by terrorists; and studies on potential threats to the EU agrifood industry. A second meeting of the group has been scheduled for February.

The Joint Research Centre, which has historically focused on nuclear safety, has created a working party on bioterrorism that has already reached some conclusions, saying that a terrorist attack using biological agents is a "possibility and would be difficult to manage". It has suggested that a surveillance system and the global pooling of expertise on the subject are required.

The centre has also launched studies on the scientific aspects of biological and chemical terrorism and the economic, social and psychological impact of an attack, and it recently opened up its database on chemical and biological weapons to EU member states.

Commissioner Busquin said: "It is important that a system of exchange of information between member states, with commission back-up, should be put in place immediately, using the same approach as was successfully adopted with mad-cow disease."

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