Calls for Science Service From Outside the Usual Suspects

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano gave an address in March at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  You can read a version of that speech at Inside Higher Ed (H/T Scientists and Engineers for America).  At first glance I compared this to the op-ed by the Agriculture Secretary arguing in favor of climate change legislation – additional evidence that science and technology issues don’t respect disciplinary silos (and they do exist outside the academy).

Secretary Napolitano makes a decent argument for why science and technology matter to the Department of Homeland Security.  Her conception of better (or any) career tracks for scientists and technologists at federal agencies is worth repeating, because as the Department of State has shown, such tracks can be beneficial, but take time to develop and integrate into the rest of the agency.

However, there’s a simplistic conception of science and technology in Secretary Napolitano’s remarks that gives me pause:

“Pulling actionable intelligence from this data requires the constant evolution of our information gathering, learning, and analytic capabilities. It requires software engineers, information systems designers, and communications and data security experts working together.”

I don’t disagree with the points, but I consider them incomplete.  Capabilities to gather, analyze, and learn from information are by no means the sole domain of information and communications technologies.  Clearly the disciplinary silos are strong outside of the academy, if Secretary Napolitano thinks its only up to those disciplines.

But even if DHS is only looking for scientists and engineers in a few specialties, it certainly enforces the truth that while the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health are considered the big U.S. science agencies, they don’t do all of the work.