UB Today Alumni Magazine Online - Fall 2002
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Can science keep us safe?

By Jaylan S. Turkkan
Vice President for Research
University at Buffalo

The enormously popular television show CSI follows the exploits of Las Vegas police crime scene investigators who deploy a forensic tool kit so advanced you might wonder if they are making half of it up. By contrast, even as FBI agent Coleen Rowley testified to Congress that the FBI’s databases are so primitive they can’t search for more than one word at a time, the television crime scene investigators appear to have advanced workstations at their disposal, instrumentation that would make a physicist pant and analytical abilities that would impress Sherlock Holmes.

Are such capabilities real? As a new federal agency is created to safeguard our security and existing agencies are shamed into sharing information, how is the electronic, biologic and behavioral information that they will be sharing acquired and analyzed? Can scientists and engineers contribute to our safety and security?

When Chancellor Robert L. King asked all of the SUNY schools to analyze their security research capabilities after September 11, we were amazed and gratified that the University at Buffalo has an enormous breadth of faculty who are expert in key areas. A quick Whitman’s Sampler of public health capabilities at UB includes, for example, experts who can sample particles in aerosols, detect anthrax in the environment and use geographic information to identify clusters of biological weapons attacks. Artificial blood for trauma patients is under development here.

In terms of infrastructure, UB experts can model how contaminants are transported in ground water, simulate how highway traffic will flow in an emergency and use artificial intelligence and statistics to fuse information from multiple sources, a capability that the Department of Defense has funded us to do for years. Our engineers are developing blast-resistant concrete. And our architecture researchers are developing secure entry systems and exit strategies from buildings.

UB’s economists are studying the impact of disasters, while our social workers and psychologists are experts in post-traumatic stress and anxiety disorders. In the much-talked-about field of biometrics (the use of physiological or behavioral characteristics to identify persons), UB’s faculty has developed algorithms to identify people’s handwriting and is now collaborating with a local company to develop better ways of scanning fingerprints. Recently UB faculty won research awards from the Federal Aviation Administration to study how people inspect baggage at airports.

All well and good. We are poised to capitalize on the new billions of dollars flowing out of the federal government to study all aspects of security. Or are we? The New York State Assembly recently asked research leaders across the state for advice about how New York’s institutions can be more competitive for large grants in counter-terror.

 

illustration: Christiane Grauert
To take off on the old saying about the three most important things in real estate (“location, location, location”), in this case it would be that we need help with “faculty, faculty, faculty.” For all of the expert faculty identified above, what we are sorely lacking is more expert faculty. In every school and college of UB, there is a shortage of faculty. Moreover, SUNY’s research universities are smaller than other major research universities in the country.

So the ranks are thin, and faculty need to be replaced. Easier said than done, as times have certainly changed in the business of hiring faculty. These days, recruiting top scientists requires a strategic approach of cobbling together state money (always scarce), private money (scarcer after the Dow bust) and internal money (what’s that?) to create attractive recruitment packages.

Gone are the days when faculty jobs were so scarce that you went out to celebrate when a university even called you for an interview. These days it’s a seller’s market where scientists come armed with sophisticated facilities, salary and technical support requirements (and sometimes lawyers) that, if they’re any good, you can rest assured every other state is willing to give to them. And holding on to talented scientists is a constant challenge.

What this creates is a lengthy and expensive process of hiring and retaining talented scientists, the very scientists we need in order to swiftly develop the nation’s technical needs in this time of crisis.

Sorely needed, then, are fast, flexible (and stable) dollars from New York State to bring the best and the brightest here to UB to work as part of transdisciplinary teams to tackle these complex questions, and to avoid a brain drain of the scientists we already have.

We need teams such as cultural anthropologists, behavioral and political scientists to understand terrorist-supporting cultures and behaviors. Teams of vaccine, pharmaceutics and immunology experts to develop first-line bio-defense. And, for example, teams of linguists, computer programmers and artificial intelligence experts to develop accent recognition and speech analysis capabilities.

Real law enforcement agents need the most advanced capabilities that scientists and engineers can produce. Yes, scientists can make us safe. We just need more of them.

Turkkan   Jaylan Turkkan was a noted research administrator at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health before joining the UB administration in 2000. This essay is based, in part, on her June 6, 2002 testimony before the New York State Assembly Task Force on Industry-University Cooperation. This essay was previously published in the Buffalo News ("Can Science Keep Us Safe?" The Buffalo News, June 23, 2002.© The Buffalo News. Reprinted with permission.)


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