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New Homeland Security Law Brings Scientific Sigh of Relief

NEW YORK, Nov. 25 - A little gridlock can go a long way.

 

The months of political wrangling that created the new US Department of Homeland Security have probably been a good thing, at least from the perspective of the biomedical research community. As given shape by Congress last week, the new federal agency is slated to pump millions of dollars into bioterror research--and won't tread on the toes of the National Institutes of Health.

 

Biomedical policy experts fretted over President Bush's initial proposal for the Department of Homeland Security, which could have spawned a new R&D bureaucracy with little room for input from the scientific community. The president' proposal also would have consolidated bioterrorism research, removing up to $2 billion in research programs from NIH jurisdiction and giving the new agency control over Lawrence Livermore National Labs.

 

But thanks in part to lobbying efforts from the research community, the final version of the legislation ensures the appointment of an undersecretary for science and technology, who will answer directly to the DHS chief, and sets up a 20-member scientific advisory committee for the new agency. It also leaves major NIH pathogen research projects alone.

 

"We're generally pleased with how the legislation turned out," said Kei Koizumi, director of the R&D budget and policy program for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "This department will make a lot of decisions with science technology implications, from publishing restrictions to funding new types of research. We wanted to make sure there's adequate advice [from the science and technology community] going into the new department. It seems good to us."

 

President Bush is expected to sign the legislation today, and name homeland security chief Tom Ridge as its head.

 

The new 475-page law spells out the agency's major R&D responsibilities:

 

·        to set up a new federally funded R&D center devoted to security analysis. This center, which could be located at an existing national lab, may also coordinate intramural and extramural security research;

·        to launch a new Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency. Much like DARPA, this agency will oversee grants, contracts and cooperative agreements to promote basic and applied research and technology development and deployment. This new agency will have an initial budget of up to $500 million for fiscal year 2003, which began Oct. 1;

·        to establish a university-based center for homeland security--most observers believe the center will be set up at Texas A&M;

·        to take over certain research programs from the Department of Energy, including biological national security programs and Lawrence Livermore National Labs' advanced scientific computing program. The bill also suggests that DHS may want to co-sponsor DOE national labs or sites.

 

DHS will also take charge of the National Bio-Weapons Defense Analysis Center and the Department of Agriculture's Plum Island Animal Disease Center. As for NIH, the DHS will "develop a coordinated strategy" with the agency for research concerning health-related terrorist threats.

 

Koizumi's analysis predicts that the new agency may have a total R&D budget of roughly $1 billion for FY 2003, less than initially projected. "For the scientific community, it's not going to be that big of a change," he said.

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