Finding a Role for Science in Homeland Security (11/02)

The following column by AGI/AIPG Geoscience & Public Policy Intern Sarah Riggen is reprinted from the November 2002 issue of The Professional Geologist, a publication of the American Institute of Professional Geologists . It is reprinted with permission.


The terrorist attacks of September 11th have changed US operations, attitudes, and priorities on many levels. National security has been a prominent issue throughout much of the post-9/11 politics and legislation in Washington. Action on this subject is worth following as the implications of related legislation will have unavoidable implications for many sectors, including the geosciences.

The piece of legislation that will likely have the greatest impact is the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which was presented by President Bush to Congress on June 18th. This act calls for one of the most extensive restructuring of the federal government to date. At the heart of the changes is the creation of a Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The mission of the new department is to "prevent terrorist attacks within the United States; reduce America's vulnerability to terrorism; and minimize the damage and recover from attacks that do occur." Various programs currently spread out among twelve federal departments and several other independent agencies will be consolidated into the DHS. They include programs from the Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

A White House statement explains why the administration has chosen such a dramatic change in government structure, "History teaches us that critical security challenges require clear lines of responsibility and the unified effort of the US government. History also teaches us that new challenges require new organizational structures." The act also seeks revisions to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and flexibility to shift money appropriated to the DHS within the agency, as the Bush Administration considers flexibility to be essential.

While the Senate and the House have moved at very different paces, both chambers have recognized the importance of the president's homeland security proposal and have taken considerable action on it. During July, twelve House committees, including the Science Committee, took up discussion of the bill (H.R. 5005) and passed their sections of it out of committee. The full House passed H.R. 5005 on July 26th by a 295-132 vote, and the Senate bill (S. 2452) was passed out of the lone Senate committee handling the legislation, the Governmental Affairs Committee, on July 24th by a 12-5 vote. It was the principal topic Senate floor debate following the August recess.

House Science Committee actions on H.R. 5005 are of particular interest, as committee members amended the legislation to address a number of science-oriented concerns and sought to strengthen the role of science and technology within the DHS. Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) has led efforts to see that science and technology play as key a role in the new department as they do in the nation's security. To guarantee that role, members of the Science Committee voted unanimously at a July 10th markup of the bill to approve two key amendments to H.R. 5005, both of which were subsequently incorporated into the final bill. An amendment offered by Boehlert and Science Committee Ranking Democrat Ralph Hall (TX) called for the appointment of a DHS Undersecretary for Science and Technology responsible for the coordination and organization of all research and development pertaining to homeland security. The other amendment was offered by Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) and would establish a Homeland Security Institute in response to a recently released National Academy of Sciences report calling for a body to provide independent technical and policy analysis to the DHS. The manner with which these amendments were made is worth noting, as the majority of decisions made were bipartisan -- the result of compromise and working together to gain full agreement.

Other amendments to H.R. 5005 included the creation of an office to aid in the transmission, from scientists to policy makers, of information and ideas on products to increase national security; the establishment of a certain number of flagship, research-based universities to partake in homeland security research; and the transfer of the Hazard Support System, a satellite wildfire detection program, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to FEMA. An amendment introduced by Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) establishes an advisory committee for the Undersecretary of Science and Technology. Rep. Don Young (R-AK) introduced an amendment that would ensure that FEMA, which is slated to become part of the DHS, continues to carry out all of its responsibilities - including natural disaster relief - in addition to its focus on homeland security issues. Establishing a balance between the continuations of traditional responsibilities along with the performance of additional homeland security needs was an issue for several of the agencies and departments that will be folded into the DHS. Some agencies have expressed concern that the additional layer of bureaucracy will be detrimental to their research goals; however others aim to ensure that homeland security-related research is given adequate priority.

The administration's request for a broad Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) exemption for the DHS has produced a strong partisan response in both the House and Senate with Republicans supporting the president and Democrats expressing concern that the exemption would create an even larger loophole allowing non-sensitive information to be kept quiet under the disclosure law. Of particular concern was the potential for industries to be able to withhold information on their risk management plans, part of the Clean Air Act. H.R. 5005 has maintained the original exemption, but an amendment to increase the freedom of the DHS to make additional exemptions failed. S. 2452 also includes a provision requiring the DHS to comply with all environmental, safety, and health regulations. This provision is not present in the House version.

There is now widespread agreement among members of congress and the administration on the importance of research and development in the new department for the types of uses already mentioned as well as many others. In recognition of this, the DHS is expected to begin with a budget of up to $2 billion for science and technology in the next fiscal year. Therefore the science community should be attuned to the establishment of the DHS and continue to support their case for the value of science to national security.

Sarah graduated this May with a bachelor's degree in geology from the College of William and Mary. She now works in northern Virginia for ICF Consulting.


This article is reprinted with permission from The Professional Geologist, published by the American Institute of Professional Geologists. AGI gratefully acknowledges that permission.

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Posted July 22, 2003


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