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Thursday, April 24, 2014

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Symposium addresses technology against terrorism, and its limits

Science can contribute greatly to preventing terrorism, but many of the most effective measures will continue to be those that focus on people rather than technology, Princeton physicist Will Happer told scientists at a symposium on bioterrorism Tuesday.

Happer was one of 16 speakers who discussed a wide range of scientific approaches to countering terrorism in the first day of a two-day conference sponsored by the University's Center for Photonics and Optoelectronic Materials (POEM).

One of the most effective measures against terrorism involving nuclear weapons, Happer said, is a U.S. program to help Russia finance the reduction in its supply of weapons-grade uranium.

"There is not much science to these actions, and that is characteristic of many counter-terrorism problems -- science can only be part of the solution," said Happer.

Happer spoke from his experience serving on a committee that was organized by the National Academy of Sciences after Sept. 11, 2001, and that issued a report titled "Making the Nation Safer: The Role of Science and Technology for Countering Terrorism."

Despite the limitations of technology, Happer said, funding scientific research that could aid the fight against terrorism is prudent. He said he supports a plan by President Bush to create an Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Countermeasures within the proposed Department of Homeland Security. "Some critics have argued that there is no need for a science and technology component to the department. But many others, myself included, think the president is right on this point."

Happer, who chairs Princeton's University Research Board, suggested that the office start with a $500 million budget, but should not take control over U.S. national labs to perform its own research. Instead it should make contracts for research with the U.S. national labs, universities and industry.

The symposium was organized by the Princeton Center for Photonics and Optoelectronic Materials in collaboration with SMART (Strengthening the Mid-Atlantic Region for Tomorrow) NJ, a consortium of representatives from government, industry and academia. It brought together New Jersey-area government officials as well as researchers from academia and industry -- a combination that University President Shirley M. Tilghman said is critical not just for developing effective countermeasures for terrorism, but for driving economic development at a statewide level.

"It is really going to take the collaboration of all three groups for us to realize the intellectual wealth that we have in this great state," said Tilghman in remarks at a Tuesday luncheon.

The symposium covered a broad range of research, from the use of quantum mechanical principles for detecting biological weapons to the use of brain imaging for probing the psychology behind terrorists. The day started with a talk on security and technology by U.S. Sen. Jon Corzine. Representatives from New Jersey biotechnology companies discussed such initiatives as an engineered system of antibodies that, in preliminary tests, has shown promise in clearing toxins from the blood and a system for quickly creating from scratch drugs or vaccines against new and emerging pathogens.

The symposium concluded Wednesday with a review of work done at or in collaboration with POEM, including work on next-generation, ultrafast computing and communications networks.

Contact: Lauren Robinson-Brown (609) 258-3601

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