Tara O'Toole

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Dr. Tara O'Toole leads the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology division, the research and development arm of the Department of Homeland Security. Her official title is "Under Secretary for Science and Technology," which she has held since November 2009. Her primarily area of scientific expertise is biosecurity, but some have accused her of overstating the bioterrorist threat.

Dr. O'Toole has both an M.D. and a master’s in public health, and her most recent job was "the CEO and Director of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), and Professor of Medicine and of Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh."[1] Further, "Dr. O'Toole is internationally known for her work on biosecurity and on health and safety issues related to the US nuclear weapons complex. Her publications in the biodefense field include articles on the response to anthrax, smallpox, and plague biological attacks; containment of contagious disease epidemics; biodefense research and development strategies; and hospital preparedness."[1]

Dr. O'Toole played a principal role in producing a series of disaster response exercises that showed America is woefully unprepared to handle a bioterror attack, including Atlantic Storm in 2005 (website here) and Dark Winter in 2001. [1],[2],[3]

Controversial Views on Biosafety

Some researchers have accused Dr. O'Toole of overstating the extent of the bioterrorist threat, leading to an increased amount of research labs handling deadly agents.[2] “O’Toole is as out of touch with reality, and as paranoiac, as former Vice President Cheney. It would be hard to think of a person less well suited for the position" of Under Secretary for Science and Technology, Rutgers University microbiologist Richard Ebright told Wired Magazine. "She was the single most extreme person, either in or out of government, advocating for a massive biodefense expansion and relaxation of provisions for safety and security. . . she makes Dr. Strangelove look sane.”[3]

However, while acknowledging that O'Toole takes an aggressive position on the possibility of a bioterrorist attack, other leading scientists disagree. Dr. Larry Brilliant, credited with the eradication of smallpox, described O'Toole as "one of the smartest, hardest working, and knowledgeable people in the field...measured, fact-based decision maker in a complex, rapidly evolving field.”[4]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Under Secretary for Science & Technology Dr. Tara O'Toole "DHS Profile", November 23, 2009.
  2. 2.0 2.1 WhoRunsGov.com Bio, WhoRunsGov.com / The Washington Post, accessed August 26, 2010.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Noah Schactman, DHS New Geek in Chief is a Biodefense Disaster Critics Charge "Wired Danger Room Blog", May 6, 2009.
  4. Noah Schactman, Colleagues Mount Quick Defense for DHS Chief Geek Pick "Wired Danger Room Blog", May 7, 2009.