Click here for free access to our latest coronavirus/COVID-19 research, commentary, and news.

Support nonprofit science journalism

Science’s extensive COVID-19 coverage is free to all readers. To support our nonprofit science journalism, please make a tax-deductible gift today.

Science Careers in National Security - Introduction


One year ago, on 11 March 2004, the world got yet another reminder of international terrorism's reach, as a series of ten explosions ripped through several of Madrid's commuter rail stations, killing 191 and wounding more than 1800 others. This tragedy, along with similar events experienced throughout the world, provide compelling testimony that civilized societies need to marshal all of their resources, including their scientific and technical expertise, to protect themselves against further attacks.

Because international terrorists have made it clear they plan to use every possible weapon against their chosen enemies, nations' military and intelligence authorities are now more eager than ever to enlist the talents of scientists and engineers to counter these threats. This week, Science's Next Wave looks into developing opportunities for scientists and engineers to find meaningful work in the national security field. We will focus, especially, on careers spent protecting ordinary people against non-conventional weapons--terror bombings, biological and chemical agents, and attacks on computer and telecommunications networks.

As Science News and Next Wave recently reported, the U.S. government is adding more resources to its science budget for addressing non-conventional threats. But this emphasis is not without its critics. More than 750 microbiologists have signed an open letter to NIH director Elias Zerhouni protesting the increasing emphasis on biodefense research at the expense of basic public health needs. As Martin Enserink and Jocelyn Kaiser discussed in Science News, this change in emphasis is forcing researchers in the field to consider a change in their own research directions.

Any large-scale funding shift forces scientists to take notice, but there's far more to this than just funding. Scientists considering careers in national security will find that the work has other positive attributes. This is important work, serving one of society's most basic needs. The threats are real and significant, and scientists can make important contributions to protecting their countries, and the people within their borders, from these threats. For scientists who wish to serve the public good, a well-chosen career related to national security has the potential to be deeply fulfilling. People working in this environment often develop a deep sense of mission and camaraderie with their colleagues not often found in other endeavors.

Yet national defense work has some drawbacks. Scientists may find more restrictions on publishing their results than in the academic or commercial worlds. In fact, scientists working for defense or intelligence agencies may be cautioned about discussing their work in any forum, because of its sensitivity. Another factor for scientists to consider is the interjection of politics--real red-state/blue-state politics--into their professional and scientific lives. When government funding for research depends on annual Congressional appropriations (as it always does, at least in the U.S.), the direction of careers can depend on decisions made by politicians that have little, if anything, to do with scientific needs.

To help new or even veteran scientists sort through these opportunities, Next Wave writers talked with individuals at agencies and institutions, and with other scientists helping defend against terror-related threats:

  • Jim Kling describes how the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency is recruiting American scientists to contribute to the defense of the U.S. and its allies while keeping up with the latest developments in science and technology.

  • Scientists and engineers interested in a career in national cybersecurity -- protecting the nation's information infrastructure -- will find plenty of opportunities, complete with funding, to learn how to secure America's information systems.

  • Andrew Fazekas gives a rundown of opportunities in various Canadian agencies tasked with gathering intelligence and developing countermeasures that ensure the safety of Canada's borders.

  • Alex Lewis talked to Anne Forde about her training in geosciences as well as her current work as a "Knowledge Agent" for the U.K. government's Defence Science and Technology Laboratory.

  • Dr. Danny Altmann from Imperial College London talks to Babette Pain about his research on developing a vaccine against anthrax , a U.S.-U.K. collaborative project that has received funding from the U.S. National Institutes of Health, and how his research may have benefits that reach beyond protection against terrorism.

We thank Norman P. Neureiter, director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy, for his help in planning this special issue.