The academy launched the project with its own funds shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks and the U.S. scientific community has responded vigorously to a call for suggestions, said Lewis Branscom, the study's co-chair and professor emeritus at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
"The project has included about 120 people, a substantial fraction of whom are a member of one or more of the academies," Branscom told a symposium at the Academy's annual meeting. "We hope to have a manuscript ready for review by May 16. The reviewers will outnumber the authors substantially."
Trying to quantify the proper response is particularly difficult, Branscom said, since the sorts of catastrophic incidents that occurred last year fall between crime and warfare. They also represent both a short-term danger and a long-term problem that will require scaling up existing solutions and developing new technologies, he said.
"We're going to try and understand the threats and vulnerabilities; we're also going to try hard not to write the al Qaida manual," Branscom said. "This is the one time the academy won't write a report that says, 'Here's your R&D agenda, lots of luck.' We'll focus a good bit on how to implement this agenda."
Branscom said the study also will touch on troubling issues such as how to integrate security features into future designs of all types. It is no longer good enough to stop at actions such as fences and guards or firewalls for computer networks. The concept of defense-in-depth needs to be widely accepted, he said.
That sort of approach will fit in well with the Bush administration's long-term strategy for dealing with the war on terrorism, said John Marburger, director of the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy. The OSTP's plan should be completed before the government's fiscal year 2004 budget process is final, which leaves plenty of time to include the final recommendations of the NAS report, he told the symposium.
"(The science community) understands terrorism exploits the knowledge that science toiled to win for mankind's good," Marburger said. "They also understand that any lasting and effective countermeasures also rely on technical knowledge only they can provide."
Both Marburger and Branscom said the issue of student visas must be treated carefully. Foreign students provide a valuable source of fresh ideas, but some accommodation for national security concerns is needed, they advised. The administration is not likely to hand down an inflexible edict, but will work with academic institutions to find the best path, Marburger said.
Marburger's office has been busy sorting through a deluge of comments and proposals that have come "over the transom" since Sept. 11, he said. The OSTP counterterrorism effort is split into five groups, many of which mirror the NAS project, he said. One group is a "fast-reaction" panel that has advised the Office of Homeland Security on emerging issues such as the anthrax attack and airline baggage screening, Marburger said.
The government's anti-bioterrorism effort is already well-defined, Marburger added, so OSTP is looking at how to create similar programs among major government agencies.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the federal biodefense effort will include both basic and applied research. The program will take advantage of existing research, including work on the deadly Ebola virus -- a vaccine for the disease should start basic human trials later this year, Fauci said, while efforts against other natural pathogens, such as the AIDS virus, also show promise in treating possible bioterror agents such as smallpox.