Bioterrorism and Biological Threats Dominate Federal Health Security Research

Other Priorities Get Scant Attention

Published in: Health Affairs, v. 31, no. 12, Dec. 2012, p. 2755-2763

Posted on on December 01, 2012

by Shoshana R. Shelton, Kathryn Connor, Lori Uscher-Pines, Francesca Pillemer, James M. Mullikin, Arthur L. Kellermann

Research Question

  1. What kind of non-classified, civilian national health security research does the federal government fund?

The federal government plays a critical role in achieving national health security by providing strategic guidance and funding research to help prevent, respond to, mitigate, and recover from disasters, epidemics, and acts of terrorism. In this article we describe the first-ever inventory of nonclassified national health security–related research funded by civilian agencies of the federal government. Our analysis revealed that the US government's portfolio of health security research is currently weighted toward bioterrorism and emerging biological threats, laboratory methods, and development of biological countermeasures. Eight of ten other priorities identified in the Department of Health and Human Services' National Health Security Strategy—such as developing and maintaining a national health security workforce or incorporating recovery into planning and response—receive scant attention. We offer recommendations to better align federal spending with health security research priorities, including the creation of an interagency working group charged with minimizing research redundancy and filling persistent gaps in knowledge.

Key Findings

  • Of the more than 1,000 studies funded, 66 percent were directed toward biological threats, including bioterrorism, emerging infectious diseases, foodborne illness and pandemic influenza.
  • Fewer than 10 percent addressed natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes or floods.


  • Agencies should use a risk-based approach to priority setting that includes the probability of a threat occurring, the amount of damage it could inflict, and the availability of countermeasures.

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