Homeland Security: The college connection

July 24, 2003
A degree in homeland security? Right now there is no such thing, but the subject is rapidly becoming an area of specialization in fields ranging from engineering to IT.

   Associate Editor

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"Terrorists are strategic actors. They choose their targets deliberately based on the weaknesses they observe in our defenses and our preparedness," so says the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security's first National Strategy document. A number of universities are taking lead roles in researching and developing technologies to help thwart terrorist strikes, and in training the people who must employ them. One is Purdue University, which recently established a Homeland Security Institute. The university is also creating new academic programs in which students, from undergrads to doctoral, will be able to earn degrees with a specialization in homeland security. Heading up the Institute is Professor Dennis Engi, head of Purdue's School of Industrial Engineering. Machine Design recently spoke to Engi about the role universities can play in protecting our nation.

Machine Design: How did Purdue's Homeland Security Institute come to be? Who makes up its research teams? What is its mission?

Engi: After 9/11 there was a lot of talk on campus about what an academic institution might be able to do to help and I was a part of that discussion. Though I've only been at Purdue for three years, I spent 25 years at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico where I worked primarily on national security. Coincidentally, what I was working on in the last several years there was related to terrorism and what we called "Ultraterrorism using Asymmetrical Warfare," which was trying to understand what organizations such as al Qaeda might do to us and prepare for it in advance.

So when I came to Purdue, it was natural for me to continue working in the security area. After 9/11, I was obviously very interested in the dialogue going on across campus. Last summer when school ended, the faculty began holding weekly meetings to discuss what we might do to help. Purdue's vice president of research posed the question, "Do we want to institutionalize an activity in the area of homeland security here at Purdue University?" The overwhelming response from the faculty was yes. It was then suggested that I direct the program on an interim basis.

The research teams are made up of members drawn from the entire Purdue faculty. We identified interdisciplinary teams from across the University, including agriculture, engineering, liberal arts, management, nursing, pharmacy, science, technology, and veterinary medicine.

Our mission is to safeguard society and protect critical, interdependent infrastructures through Learning, Engagement, and Discovery of innovative concepts, policies, and technologies.

MD: How does each element - learning, discovery, and engagement - fit into Purdue's strategic plan?

Engi: The learning element of the mission statement refers to Purdue's curriculum and how we are educating our students at all levels. Discovery relates to ongoing research at the University, and engagement includes domestic and international outreach initiatives we are involved in. Recently, for instance, I was asked by Indiana's Counter Terrorism and Security Council to help run a seminar for first responders in the state of Indiana, to better understand what we can do to improve information sharing in response to attacks or natural disasters. The forum included about 100 first responders from Indiana as well as representatives from the FBI and the Dept. of Justice. Participants broke into groups and were charged with defining the current information-sharing system, its problems, and potential solutions.

Out of that activity came a written report describing a new information-sharing system that could work not just for the state of Indiana but also across the country. The forum was supported and, in fact initiated by the Federal Dept. of Homeland Security, which is supporting similar meetings across the country to understand what can be done to improve information sharing for first responders.

Within the Learning element we have discussed offering an "Area of Specialization" designator on transcripts for students who complete a core set of courses in homeland security. At this point, we aren't offering any degrees in homeland security because there's a sense that it may be too limiting for students. One consideration, however, is in the area of risk management, which is more broadly applicable than homeland security but still covers the subject. That's yet to be decided.

The way we envision the Institute of Homeland Security is an umbrella for a variety of centers that we already have at Purdue, which are doing things that are important for homeland security. One of the best examples is The Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security (CERIAS). This is the world's foremost University center for multidisciplinary research and education in areas of information security. Research areas include computer, network, and communications security as well as information assurance. CERIAS can play a significant role in reducing the risk of cyberterrorism.

MD: How closely are Purdue's objectives aligned with the objectives of the National Homeland Security plan?

Engi: The Purdue Institute's objectives are based on the six critical mission areas outlined in the National Strategy for Homeland Security: Intelligence and warning, border and transportation security, domestic counterterrorism, protecting critical infrastructures, defending against catastrophic terrorism, and emergency preparedness and response. Methodological approaches to helping meet the critical mission areas include law, science and technology, information sharing and systems, and international cooperation. Many courses at Purdue have methodological foundations in science and technology, and in fact support one or more of the critical mission areas. Ongoing research activities support the critical mission areas as well.

We also created an advisory council for the Institute drawing upon different institutions that had interests in each of the six critical mission areas. Making up the council are companies from the private sector including industry, consulting firms, and other places that generate revenue. The second group includes government, state, federal, and local agencies. A third group includes nongovernment organizations or citizens' interest groups, while the fourth targets academia.

MD: Has Purdue partnered with outside companies or other universities in its homeland security effort?

Engi: One council member is a senior executive at Oracle and that company is very interested in being a strategic partner with Purdue and going forward with R&D activities. Another strategic partner is Sandia National Laboratories and we are already collaborating with that institution on various activities. Different citizens' groups have also shown interest in working on homeland security. We are also looking at other universities that have strong educational programs. Purdue, for example, doesn't have a law school. To really pursue this area our position would be much better if we were to partner with an academic institution, such as Indiana University, that does have a law school.

One area I researched as part of a SWOT analysis was other university activities relevant to homeland security. I found more than 50 other universities in the process of establishing homeland security centers or research activities. Some of Purdue's greatest strengths lie in its demonstrated expertise in chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear countermeasures; demonstrated expertise in responding to incidents involving weapons of mass destruction and biological warfare; and a nationally recognized program in engineering.

Homeland Security for dummies

Four major directorates make up the Dept. of Homeland Security. These include:

  • Border and Transportation Security, including agencies such as the U.S. Customs Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the Transportation Security Administration;
  • Emergency Preparedness and Response, which includes the Federal Emergency Management Agency;
  • Science and Technology, which seeks to use all scientific and technical advantages for homeland security and is made up of agencies such as the Environmental Measurements Laboratory and the National Bioweapons Defense Analysis Center;
  • Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection, which will analyze information from other agencies such as the FBI and CIA involving security threats or infrastructure vulnerabilities.

Six critical mission areas have been identified for DHS in the National Strategy for Homeland Security (www.whitehouse.gov/homeland/book/) developed by the Federal government:

  • Intelligence and Warning: It is critical that the nation have an intelligence and warning system to detect terrorist activity before it manifests itself in an attack.
  • Border and Transportation Security: The goal is to "promote the efficient and reliable flow of people, goods, and services across borders while preventing terrorists from using transportation conveyances or systems to deliver implements of destruction."
  • Domestic Counterterrorism: The strategy calls for law-enforcement agencies to assign priority to preventing and interdicting terrorist activity within the U.S.
  • Protecting Critical Infrastructure and Key Assets: The strategy calls for improving protection of the individual pieces and interconnected systems that make up infrastructure networks (physical such as energy and transportation networks, and virtual such as the Internet).
  • Defending Against Catastrophic Threats: Key is development of new sensing techniques and sensors along with harnessing technical knowledge and tools to counter the spread of expertise, technology, and materials needed to build deadly weapons.
  • Emergency Preparedness and Response: The goal here is to minimize damage and speed recovery in the event of terrorist attacks. This means strengthening the first line of defense: first responders such as police officers, firefighters, and medical providers as well as coordinating information flow with government personnel.

Academia steps up to fight terrorism

University researchers are hard at work developing new technologies to help protect the homefront. Here are just a few activities at Purdue that support the Dept. of Homeland Security.

Intelligence and Warning: Electrical and computer engineering researchers are working in the area of multimedia data security, protecting image and video data to keep terrorists from embedding hidden messages into images or documents.

Border and Transportation: Forestry and natural resource researchers are studying methods of monitoring nonfood, aquatic animal products used as additives in the food chain.

Domestic Counterterrorism: Computer science experts are researching ways to mitigate the risk of cyberterrorism against our critical infrastructure.

Defending Against Catastrophic Events: Nuclear engineers are working on radiation-monitoring networks for metropolitan areas. Civil engineers are studying the behavior of reinforced concrete structures, blast resistance, and progressive collapse and fire protection.

Also, Purdue's Center for Sensing Science and Technology has developed a neutron-based detection system for rapid sensing of chemical agents and explosives, as well as a mini-mass spectrometer for quickly detecting chemical agents.

Emergency Preparedness and Response: Agronomy experts are researching remote-sensing systems that can tell if crops have been damaged by biological or environmental hazards. Agricultural economists are pursuing a multidisciplinary approach to evaluating and auditing livestock in the event of an agro-terrorist attack.

Protecting Critical Infrastructures: Civil engineers are developing a system called BREATHe for bioregenerative-exhaust air treatment. BREATHe will purify both water and air using microbes. Mechanical engineers are studying smart buildings with built-in sensors and actuators designed to provide early detection and warning systems, real-time threat identification, automatic guidance for evacuation, and decontamination tools.

And, agricultural and biological engineers are working to secure our food supply, specifically crop production, handling, storage, and transport.

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