Bad chemistry threatens US national security
The US Departments of Defense (DoD) and of Homeland Security (DHS) have been warned that their lacklustre funding of research may be compromising national security.
The Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog, reported in September that the DHS has been slow to identify and develop countermeasures against terrorist threats. Meanwhile, the DoD's own chief technologist has stated that the department's science and technology spending is 'inadequate'. The admission appeared in an internal memo, accidentally posted to the DoD website in late September.
In the memo, John Young, the director of defence research and engineering, urges Robert Gates, the department's director, to bolster funding to selected priority areas by nearly $10 billion (£4.9 billion) - including a proposal to direct $300-500 million annually toward 'foundational science'. Biosensors, nanosensors and plasmonics are among the areas that need greater funding, he said.
The memo was leaked less than two weeks after a White House R&D budget guidance document for fiscal year 2009 identified above-inflation increases for DoD basic research as a 'significant priority'.
The American Chemical Society welcomed both the Young memo and the White House guidance as signs that the Bush administration is thinking about DoD basic research more strategically. But the ACS warned that the department's consistent under-funding of basic research now poses a significant national security threat.
'If the department is not engaged sufficiently in cutting-edge research, it risks being caught unawares of new developments with potential military applications,' said Catherine Hunt, the president of ACS. 'Declines in funding for the S&T programme over the past several years, especially in the basic research programmes, have resulted in reduced awards to universities, which in turn have harmed the ability to recruit and retain talented researchers in defence-related areas.'
ACS is calling for a 10 per cent increase to the department's basic research budget, to take it to $1.7 billion per year. The society would like to see DoD support more research on detectors that can remotely sense chemical and biological agents, for example. It also wants spending on pharmaceutical modes of action, particulate air transport and dispersal, as well as chemical and biochemical binding.
The US Senate has proposed a slightly smaller $1.5 billion budget for DoD basic research in an authorisation bill approved on 1 October. Although that figure is five per cent above the White House's request, it would still represent a cut of four per cent from the current level. As Chemistry World went to press, negotiations were taking place between House and Senate to formulate a final bill for President Bush for action.
The DHS is also facing criticism over its funding of security research, after a 6 September report by the Government Accountability Office said that the department has made only 'limited' progress in pushing forward its science and technology programme.
But some chemists working on counterterrorism technology have defended the DHS, arguing that it is too soon to judge the four-year old department's performance because it takes time to develop useful devices.
'First I must perfect a device so that I can use it in the lab, then I have to get it working in the field, and then an instrument company has to make it profitable enough to be successful,' explained Brad Jones, a chemistry professor at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, US.
Although many anti-terror technologies have been developed that work well in the laboratory, the difficulty has been to demonstrate their effectiveness in the real world.
'There are not a lot of things that are ready for the kinds of environments and demands that are necessary to put sensors out in the field,' David Walt, a chemistry professor at Tufts University, Massachusetts, US, told Chemistry World. When they have to perform under real world conditions, the technologies that Walt is familiar with all 'failed miserably', he added.
'In defence of DHS, it is not easy to weed through the systems that are really worth investing in versus those that have hype associated with them,' said Walt, who is also the scientific founder of Illumina, a biotechnology company based in San Diego, California, US.
But some researchers share the GAO's concerns. There are worries that the department lacks a cohesive, top-down plan for its research.
'We are making investments in some areas that are very duplicative and may not have big payoffs,' warned Cindy Williams, a former assistant director of the Congressional Budget Office now with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Security Studies Program. 'At the same time, we are leaving gaping holes in areas that are vital, and amenable to R&D.'
Responding to the report, the department said the GAO presents 'a distorted and incomplete' picture of its progress and ignores the 'tremendous' scientific and technological advances it has funded.
Rebecca Trager, US correspondent for Research Day USA
Also of interest
Underfunding now a threat to national security, ACS says
Congressional watchdog criticises US Department of Homeland of Security's research record but chemists disagree