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Researchers seek to shore up shipping security

During a press conference following the March 2014 Nuclear Security Summit in the Hague, President Obama noted that his biggest security concern wasn’t Russia—or any other regional superpower—but rather “the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan.”

With that in mind, we must consider exactly how that scenario might transpire, said Stephen E. Flynn, co-director of Northeastern’s George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security. “How would a nuclear weapon actually get into Manhattan?” asked Flynn, also the founding director of the Center for Resilience Studies and a professor of political science. “The most likely way in which it would potentially come to a major U.S. city is not on the tip of a missile but in the belly of a ship,” he said, noting that his long-held position has been openly validated by the intelligence community.

“The reality is we do very little checking of what comes in on ships, yet we watch our airspace pretty closely,” he said. That hasn’t always been the case: During the early days of the cold war, before Russia had missiles or the means to fly to the U.S., the safety of the country’s shipping infrastructure was one of the federal government’s prime concerns. But today, Flynn said, the industry has become enormously vulnerable to smuggling of contraband.

Flynn and an interdisciplinary team of researchers—which also includes Sean Burke, Executive Director of Northeastern’s Center for Resilience Studies, and Peter Boynton, co-director with Flynn of the Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security—are attempting to improve the resilience of the shipping industry and study ways to bolster private-sector counter-proliferation efforts in the global supply chain by facilitating conversations between industry, academia, and government. The two-year project, supported with funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, aligns with Northeastern’s focus on solving global challenges in security, one of the university’s core research themes.

The grant is one of 10 the MacArthur Foundation announced earlier this year in an effort to help prevent nuclear terrorism and strengthen nuclear security around the globe.

“It’s a tricky thing to do since these communities often don’t spend time working together in a collaborative way,” Flynn said of convening experts in three different fields. “We think that we’ll be able to be helpful at Northeastern because we’re able to straddle these communities reasonably well.”

Northeastern’s project will include broad-scale events in Singapore and Seattle, home to two of the world’s largest port hubs. “We’ll be bringing in government and industry players to ask what can be done to enhance the visibility and accountability of what flows through this network and what can be done collaboratively between the government and industry capabilities,” Flynn explained.

In 2007, Congress passed a law requiring all overseas cargo containers to be inspected before they’re loaded on a U.S.-bound ship. But that law has never been enforced, Flynn said.

“Should we have a security breach, I don’t think congress will repeal the law. Instead what they’ll likely—almost certainly—do is insist the law be enacted immediately,” he said. “So let’s think about how we address what congress was trying to do in a way that industry can live with versus hoping nothing ever happens and this law never gets enforced.”

In this sense, Flynn said, industry should view the new collaboration as an opportunity to help mold the future of this infrastructure to ensure business continuity instead of being forced by government to make unrealistic changes.

He also noted that the majority of other resilience efforts should duplicate his team’s approach to solving problems. Instead of letting research, standards formation, and policy changes unfold in a linear sequence over a 20-year period, convening all the stakeholders in one room allows for simultaneous progress on multiple fronts. That’s important, Flynn said, in part because “how you develop standards can inform your research priorities and the economic incentives issue can inform what standards are most relevant for the marketplace.”

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