Homeland security technology: a hot new academic specialty?

On 9/11, from the hilltop campus that looks out over New York Harbor, Harold Raveché watched the twin towers of the World Trade Center as they collapsed. The president of Stevens Institute of Technology soon realized that the attack would mean a race for advanced security technology.

"At that point, I knew that technologies to protect ourselves - especially the port [of New York] - were going to be developed," says Mr. Raveché. He also recognized that Stevens' proximity to New York's harbor was a particular asset.

Now the school is working to become known as "Homeland Security University."

Stevens is not alone. Other universities are shifting to a focus on domestic security. Harvard and Tufts Universities offer policy courses, while George Washington is examining risk management. Even a small liberal-arts school like Curry College in Milton, Mass., offers a certificate in homeland security.

But Stevens is going well beyond those efforts. Last month, the university hired Maj. Gen. Bruce Lawlor, the former chief of staff of the Department of Homeland Security. General Lawlor helped to create the department after Sept. 11 and worked with Secretary Tom Ridge before retiring in the fall of 2003. "My role there is to provide some expertise in building a new kind of program that takes advantage of all [Stevens'] strengths and focuses on homeland security," he says.

This transformation is already under way. At Stevens's Center for Maritime Systems, earlier work on marine pollutants is being used to figure out how to deal with possible intentional spills. Researchers hope to use high frequency radar and computer analysis to detect small vessels in a crowded harbor.

Another project relies on cold plasma, or highly energized gas, to kill biological agents like anthrax. The idea originated as a way to kill germs in public spaces, but it can also be used to clean buildings that have been exposed to pathogens.

The future of projects like these will, of course, depend on funding. And even as Stevens faculty and administrators seek out sponsors for their projects, there are critics who worry about the development of a homeland security-industrial complex, similar to the military industrial complex that developed after the Cold War.

Risks include the allocation of funding to the scientists with the best connections rather than the most merit and the exaggeration of security needs to feed a growing security sector. Taxpayers will ultimately be the ones who pay for any overspending on security.

Stevens has faculty who have left high-ranking positions in the Department of Defense, but the school has always had close ties with the military. It was founded in 1870 as an engineering college by Col. John Stevens, the treasurer of the Revolutionary Army under George Washington.

Today, Stevens is known as an engineering school. But it hopes to also be recognized as a center for homeland security technology.

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