Looking Back: Responding to September 11, 2001

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Publication date: 
11 September 2003

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on New York City and the Pentagon, several prominent science policy leaders offered their thoughts on the role of science and technology in the post September 11 world. Selections from the 2001 remarks of John Marburger, then the incoming director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy; NSF Director Rita Colwell; and House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) are provided below:


"Today the most pressing of these needs is an adequate and coordinated response to the vicious and destructive terrorist attacks on September 11, a response in which science and technology are already playing an important role. The scientific and technical communities have signaled their commitment to this urgent national need, and functions of coordination and evaluation of proposed programs are increasingly important to realize their full potential.

"The struggle against terrorism has many fronts, and science and technology pervade them all. From instruments of surveillance that are consistent with our nation's love of individual freedom, to basic advances in science that feed technologies important for long term economic strength, and the international collaborations that awaken in other cultures the spirit of objectivity and the quest for truth, the security of our nation depends upon thoughtful management of our scientific and technical resources."


"As all of you know so well, knowledge is our strongest insurance for preparedness. Without new knowledge we cannot develop foresight. As we evolve increasingly into a knowledge-based society, our economic growth, our national security, and our social well being will depend on the most advanced discoveries in every field. Knowledge is the bedrock.

"Our ability to use foresight gives us a kind of early warning system - a guard against unintended consequences."

"Science can be an effective predictor. To prevent requires more. The research community needs to find more effective methods to use its capacity to predict to meet real world needs through prevention.

"Everyone in this room knows that by solving a present problem we can easily sow the seeds of genuine dilemmas for the next generation. History is replete with examples. When foresight directs our actions and the use of knowledge, we are a lot less likely to fix the present at the cost of the future.

"But we can never think of our current knowledge as a security blanket for the future. It will help us in the present but as [Alfred North] Whitehead again instructs us, 'Knowledge doesn't keep any better than fish.'

"New, more complete knowledge replaces it - a process of constant renewal and at an ever accelerating pace. This makes an unshakable case for consistent research in all eras, at all times."

"In the 21st century, success will be determined increasingly by science and technology. Therefore, economic survival means being on the cutting edge of discovery and knowledge creation.

"Choosing otherwise is not frugal; it's just shortsighted. September 11 has taught us that terrorists also utilize sophisticated science and technology."

"This new era marked by the watershed events of 9/11 presents new directions for science and technology. As we incorporate the phrase 'homeland security' into our national lexicon, every sector of society, but especially the federal government, will be in the business of preparedness."

"As we reflect on our knowledge-driven society, we all know that knowledge alone is not enough to make a better world. The Founding Fathers framed a set of primary values for our nation based on the independence of, and the respect for, individuals. Armed with these values, science becomes an important vehicle for human progress."


". . . universities and colleges are inherently implicated in our response to September 11th. For while we say that the world changed on September 11th; it's really our knowledge of the world, our sense of the world, not the world itself, that changed on that fateful day."

". . . academia, as a leading generator, analyzer, repository and purveyor of human knowledge and insight, will necessarily have an impact on whether and how our world actually changes. I hope and expect that academia . . . are up to that task, which may require some new undertakings, but mostly will simply require more intensive and better focused attention on existing efforts and greater engagement with the rest of American society.

"I don't believe, for instance, that last month's attacks signal a need for any fundamental change in the structure or nature of our academic institutions. I'm thinking here, particularly, of the openness of our colleges and universities - openness to both ideas and people."

"So, the events of September 11th have forced us to alter our agenda in ways large and small. But fundamentally, our nation's R&D and education needs remain pretty much what they were before the attacks, and, for now, at least, the resources available to meet those needs remain about the same, as well.

"What we need to do now is to draw on, and to shore up, the strengths of our major institutions . . . not just to prevent future attacks, but to ensure that our nation remains a beacon of freedom and openness and opportunity and innovation and prosperity. Those traits may make our nation a more appealing target for terrorists, but they're also what make it worth defending."

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