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Back to November 2002 CRN Table of Contents

[Published originally in the November 2002 edition of Computing Research News, Vol. 14/No. 5, p. 5.]

Homeland Security

By Peter A. Freeman

Homeland security is perhaps the most urgent and immediate issue facing our nation today.

There are, of course, many issues facing us, as there always seem to be in the world in which we live--health care, quality of education, erosion of privacy, economic stability, world peace. While our field contributes to addressing all of these issues, it appears that we in computing are in a unique position to contribute to homeland security in a more direct and immediate way than we can to any other single, compelling issue.

Very simply, this is because in the war on terrorism in which we are now engaged, information is at the heart of all efforts to protect us from a usually unknown and often unknowable enemy. Obtaining relevant information in a timely manner and then disseminating it to those who can act on it to protect us is the core of all homeland defense efforts, ranging from airport screening to determining if the spread of an infectious disease is actually bio-terrorism. Devising algorithms to process information and designing the machines to implement those algorithms (to use a very simple, but not complete, definition of computing research) is, of course, what we do.

Many branches of the U.S. Government are now focused on contributing to homeland security, and as they work on carrying out their missions they are discovering a pressing need for new technology, new ideas, and a new set of people who understand cutting-edge science and engineering. NSF, for the past year, has been trying to serve as a middleman to put agencies with a need in touch with those in the community whose research and knowledge may be able to address those needs. Our near-term strategy is to highlight the value of basic research by making linkages between our basic research and mission agency needs. This is working successfully and will benefit basic research over the long term.

On the one hand, researchers often don't understand the needs of those in operational agencies, but could make an impact if they did. On the other, the operational agencies need the depth of expertise that exists in the NSF community. Many CISE researchers have been delighted at the opportunity to contribute, and the mission agencies have been pleased to have access to leading research.

NSF has been making connections in a variety of ways, including holding workshops that include PI's and government personnel, bringing government technology managers together to discuss their research needs so that we and others can start relevant funding programs, making presentations at conferences and workshops, and having NSF personnel work closely with other agencies as they explore new technology relevant to their missions. Areas include biology, physics, electrical engineering, social science, and many areas of computer science and engineering. Commensurate with my opening comments, an area of high interest to many agencies is the general area of knowledge discovery and dissemination; but there is hardly an area covered by the programs of CISE that isn't of interest.

As you might expect, the work of some of the agencies requesting assistance is heavily classified. NSF does not support classified work and does not intend to do so, but the organic act that created NSF and provides our basic mission clearly indicates our responsibility to support national defense: "To promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and to secure the national defense."

We have noted an eagerness on the part of many in the community to contribute to homeland defense, including in some cases obtaining security clearances so they can be of maximum assistance. In a similar manner, agencies are not only eager to tap into the great reservoir of ideas and people in the S&E research community, but in some cases are quite willing to fund unclassified, basic research. A certain amount of this funding has already taken place through supplements to existing NSF grants using funds supplied by other agencies. We anticipate more of this in the coming year.

NSF has also been trying to refocus programs and develop new programs, where appropriate, that can contribute to homeland security. Some of these are obvious, such as network security, trusted systems, data mining, and database security. On the whole, however, we are trying to keep our focus on the long-term research that is the hallmark of NSF. This is entirely consistent with the prevailing view that homeland security is an issue that will be with us for many years and for which many new and fundamental discoveries are needed.

All of us in computing have an opportunity to contribute to our society in a direct and meaningful way because of the centrality of our discipline to homeland security efforts. If you are invited to participate in a workshop on the topic or asked to meet with an operational agency, I encourage you to do so. If you have an idea that you think could contribute to some aspect of homeland security, I urge you to bring that to the attention of the appropriate people.

As you might imagine, that may not be an easy task, but we at NSF may be able to help. I suggest you first talk with your Program Director or someone else at NSF who knows you and your work, or an equivalent person at DARPA or in other agencies. They should be able to help you locate the right place to take your idea. If they are not able to do this, then feel free to contact Dr. Gary Strong ( or me.

Our field, in many ways, is helping create the world of the future. It is fitting that we also have the opportunity and responsibility to help make that world a more secure place. I strongly encourage you to help do that through your research and educational activities.

Peter Freeman ( is Assistant Director--CISE at the National Science Foundation.



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