National labs need vision and money, official says

Scientists at national laboratories will be critical to post-Cold War national security solutions, but they need a clearer vision and financial commitment from the government, according to the director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Lab Director Michael Anastasio spoke Tuesday to scientists and reporters at the Woodrow Wilson Center about the security challenges of the 21st century.

Anastasio said more than a half-century ago, Los Alamos headed the president's call to make sure the United States had a safe, reliable nuclear deterrent. Since then, research at national labs on pathogens like anthrax led to the understanding to build anthrax detectors, which Anastasio said were deployed when anthrax was discovered in a letter delivered to Congress.

He said other technology that national scientists were developing was deployed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but he did not offer specifics.

Anastasio said the security challenges today, as the nation becomes more dependent on information, include information technology and cyber security, and scientists have a role to play in combating cyber terrorism. But he cautioned that waning leadership and financial commitment to the national labs is a problem.

In response to a question, Anastasio said the scientists no will longer work on the Reliable Replacement Warhead program, as Congress zeroed out funding in recent budget negotiations. "We don't have a consensus on what we're doing and where we're trying to go, so unfortunately a decision by an Appropriations Committee is setting policy," he said.

Anastasio said government investment in physical sciences as a percentage of gross domestic product is "barely half what it was 30 years ago." "We can't continually eat our seed corn and reap the benefits of past investments."

He offered a prescription to rebuild the partnership between government policymakers and the science community that first asked for a vision from the highest levels of government on what the priorities are. Next, he said a structure must be in place to implement that vision.

Anastasio asked if scientists should tackle the issue of dependence on foreign oil, terrorists attacking the United States or a combination, for example.

Finally, a sustained investment in science, especially longer-term, higher-risk projects, is needed. "It's got to be an investment that spans discovery to applied science," he said. In non-scientific terms, that means funding that would not stop before a useful product is actually developed.

When pressed for details on how the government and scientific community should develop a science security plan for the next century, he said it should neither be a top-down dictate from an administration nor a "bottoms-up" approach from committees of scientists.

Anastasio advocated a model akin to the Cold War era, where policymakers would decide security goals and then trust and fund scientists to develop solutions to meet those goals.

"If policymakers, government and the science and technology community come together and meet this challenge," he said, "they can meet the national security needs now and in the future."

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