Science and terrorism

Scientists lost in their labs and the terrorists plotting their next attack are no longer two unlinked communities, says Sir Richard Mottram, former permanent secretary for intelligence, security and resilience with the UK government.

Science can both contribute to and help counter the global threat of terrorism, he told delegates at the European Science Open Forum (ESOF) 2008 on Saturday  (19 July).

From November 2005 to November 2007, he dealt with, among others, a foot and mouth outbreak for which the UK government had extensive contingency plans. This outbreak was linked to a failure in biosecurity at either a government laboratory or a related commercial facility.

He also dealt with the murder of a former Russian spy in the UK, Alexander Litvinenko, by poisoning with polonium-210, in 2007.

Sir Richard says weakly regulated scientific activity and dissemination of scientific knowledge could increase the risk of terrorist threats. Notions of scientific freedom and openness need to be “tempered” and effective regulatory mechanisms developed to counter the threat.

Similarly,  scientific and technological solutions can help counter terrorism, such as using sensors and biometrics for scanning a person; information handling and communication tools; improving infrastructure to counter terrorism; and undertaking psychology and behaviour studies to understand what drives terrorists’ minds. But these could be misused by terrorist groups too, he cautioned.

Science and technology need to be at the heart of policy responses to counter the general threat terrorism and the specific threat of proliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, Sir Richard suggests.

One clear lesson to be drawn from US attempts to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is the importance of ensuring that intelligence analysis and assessment draw on expert scientific advice, he says.

An important policy conclusion from the Iraq experience is the need to maintain deep scientific expertise within the intelligence community.

In the UK and many other countries, he says, it has been difficult to develop a government-wide science and technology strategy to counter terrorism as these policies are formed by internal security or home ministries that are not science-based.

In these ministries, more compelling or immediate problems could garner more financial resources than science programmes.

Developing science and technology strategies are also hindered by uncertainties over the exact magnitude of threat and the kind of response needed to counter it.

He warns that European governments do not take the potential threat of terrorism, including misuse of nuclear technology by terrorists seriously.

The picture gets more complex in the case of some developing countries such as India, which has a growing economy, is an emerging a world leader in information systems, and has faced terrorist attacks, Sir Richard told SciDev.Net.

“How to control dissemination of scientific information through the cyberspace and its misuse is important,” he says.

T V Padma, South Asia coordinator, SciDev.Net

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