Carnegie Mellon receives grant for domestic and international security research

Getting a $2 million research grant is a bit unusual, but then so are the researchers who work in Carnegie Mellon’s Engineering and Public Policy department (EPP). They’re more politically opinionated than your typical scientists, but these EPP professors all have advanced degrees in physics, computer science, and biology. Although they currently teach, previous job experiences range from NASA shuttle astronaut to university president to chemical weapons inspector. The application of their varying technological expertise to real-life problems has been so successful that the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has renewed their substantial endowment for the next five years.

EPP department head Granger Morgan said that “EPP works on problems where the technical details really matter.” This is political science with strong emphasis on the science. Their research focuses on intimidating issues such as nuclear terrorism, plague, communication between emergency responders, and attacks on the electrical grid.

Morgan explained that the EPP’s mission is concerned with “figuring out how to make our society less vulnerable to attacks we might prevent, more resilient in the face of attacks we can’t prevent, and more informed about what to do when we face problems of this sort.”

Morgan noted that “even a small amount of money can make a big impact,” and described how an EPP professor at MIT found flaws in a missile system based only on TV footage. After 9/11, the MacArthur Foundation decided to revive the EPP’s work on international and domestic security issues. Apparently pleased with the EPP’s resulting accomplishments, such as professor Keith Florig’s mail terrorism prevention project and Ph D student Matt Dombroski’s analysis of a theoretical dirty bomb attack in Pittsburgh, the foundation recently renewed the grant, funding nine main research projects.

This time around, Florig is investigating the idea of nuclear terrorism from a civilian perspective. He wonders what the best strategies are that the average person should follow in order to survive a nuclear attack. Florig, who has four degrees from Carnegie Mellon, said that “unfortunately, in the current geopolitical climate, we have to take seriously the risk that terrorists might obtain a nuclear weapon and use it in an American city.”

Although the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s website gives plenty of advice for handling nuclear terrorism, Florig stated that “if you followed some of that advice, you could get yourself in a whole lot of trouble.” For example, being in the basement helps, but for a large nuclear weapon, “if you’re closer than 10 kilometers from the blast site, you’ll be fried within the hour.”

Basement shelters are on every paranoid person’s mind, but would they be of any use? Florig intends to “compare the costs and benefits of a variety of protective actions and critically evaluate advice to the public from various government agencies on what to do in a nuclear emergency.” Florig claims that the odds of a nuclear shelter being effectively used within 10 years of being built is one in 7000, assuming that the chance of a radiation emergency occurring in the U.S. in the next 10 years is one in five. Don’t go on a duct-tape spree just yet.

Other projects being funded are just as critical. For example, in the 9/11 Commission report one can find the horror story of firefighters in the North Tower. Unaware that the South Tower had collapsed, Fire Department of New York (FDNY) personnel continued to facilitate the evacuation of civilians long after the order to abandon the North Tower had been broadcast. Although the NYPD heard the warning, many firefighters did not, due to faulty radios. The FDNY lost 343 firefighters that day, the largest loss of life of any emergency response agency in history. The fact that this tragedy could have been avoided angered many Americans, including EPP professor John Peha.

“I was horrified to learn about the firefighters who never received the order to evacuate the North Tower of the World Trade Center. One hundred twenty-one firefighters were still in the tower when it collapsed. None survived. We can and must do better.”

The tragic 9/11 report inspired Peha to investigate emergency communication systems in the United States. What Peha learned was disturbing: “The American system is unnecessarily prone to failure, inefficient, and expensive, thanks to outdated technology and ineffective policy.” Although some analysts predict that radio spectrum will run out by the year 2010, Peha believes that with better technology and smarter policy, the issue can be avoided.

“The fundamental problem is that communications is a local issue. We need one uniform system. Instead, we have 50,000 public safety agencies in this country.”

Scientists at Carnegie Mellon create new technology, but without researchers like Florig and Peha, these technologies might go unused. Researchers at the EPP are familiar not only with this new technology, but also with the problems facing society today. The proposals and questions raised by their research will hopefully pave the way for successful technological solutions to the enormous security challenges America faces today.