Nuclear weapons, biological agents, cyber-attacks and chemical warfare are among the many possibilities Lewis Branscomb sees as potential means for terrorists to harm the United States.

Branscomb, a professor of public policy and corporate management at Harvard University co-chaired the National Academy of Sciences study, “Making the Nation Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism,” presented many scenarios of terrorists attacks in a lecture last night at the Michigan League. Branscomb offered several possible methods to deter these actions, emphasizing that scientific innovations can play a key role in protecting the nation.

He maintained that many of the weapons terrorists use were created during the technological competition of the Cold War, making scientists responsible for preventing their use.

“It’s a world we scientists created, and we have a moral obligation to do something about it,” Branscomb said.

He presented several means to combat terrorism, including the development of sensor networks to inspect imported goods, the restructuring of office building ventilation with superior air filters and the use of substance detectors that, like dogs, could “smell” hazardous materials. He said that since attacks would likely occur on multiple complex systems, the government would be unwise to focus only on one possible danger.

Branscomb said the detonation of a nuclear weapon would prove the most destructive terrorist act, and that terrorists could smuggle the devices into the country with relative ease – but added that terrorists could only obtain such weapons with difficulty.

“If you believe that you should only focus on weapons of mass destruction, you focused on the most dangerous weapons, but the most difficult for terrorists to get their hands on,” he said.

Many students who attended Branscomb’s lecture said they were impressed with the innovative means by which he proposed to address terrorism.

“It’s great to hear an intellectual opinion on the threat of terrorism,” Rackham student Erica Williams said, adding that Branscomb’s plans were refreshing after listening to the usual speculations about terror attacks.

Scott Randall, a student in the School of Public Health, said one of his professors recommended the lecture to him because Branscomb would discuss the possible terrorist tampering on water systems, a main concern in his toxicology studies. But after listening to Branscomb’s extensive range of topics, he said he found the lecture “interesting, broader than I thought.”

Branscomb said that although the government must invest in extensive research and productive means to defend its citizens, he believed its recent actions have provided little additional security.

“I’m worried that the government is needlessly amplifying the threat” through their inaction, he said. “We are not significantly safer than we were 15 years ago.”

The Office of the Vice President for Research sponsored the event in conjunction with the Office of the Provost and the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. Lee Katterman, the assistant to Vice President for Research Fawwaz Ulaby, said the office invited Branscomb to speak because of his extensive research in how science and technology can help stop terrorism.

“He’s been looking quite extensively into the kinds of things science and technology communities, like our University, can do to confront terrorism,” he said.

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