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Using University Knowledge to Defend the Country (Perspectives)

Issues in Science and Technology 2010, Wntr, 26, 2

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Everyone understands that the United States will need new ideas to meet the threat of terrorism, and indeed, history shows the way. Seventy years ago, the country's scholars ransacked their respective disciplines for the ideas that won World War II. Academic ideas continued to produce key technologies, including hydrogen bombs and intercontinental ballistic missiles, well into the Cold War. Much work was done through the National Academies, most notably when a National Research Council report persuaded the Navy to launch its massive Polaris submarine program. Still, that was a long time ago. How well is government using today's academic insights to fight terrorism? Three years ago I asked 30 specialists to review what academic research has to say for a comprehensive volume entitled WMD Terrorism: Science and Policy Choices (MIT Press, 2009). As expected, we found a large, insightful body of literature, much of which drew on disciplines, from nuclear physics to game theory, that government could never have sorted out for itself. The really striking thing, however, was how often U.S. policy failed to reflect mainstream academic insights.