Industry, academia and first responders all benefit from the funding and work performed by the research branch of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), but there are areas for improvement, including closer integration with agency components, consistent resourcing, and reasserting leadership in biodefense for the homeland, various officials told a House panel on Tuesday.
The Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate also needs to maintain its focus on either technology transfer or long-term research and development (R&D) and on who it represents, Rep. Dan Donovan (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications, said at the outset of a hearing to gather external stakeholder perspectives on the effectiveness of the S&T branch.
“I am troubled that S&T has repeatedly changed its focus, both on whether to focus on short-term technology transferring or longer-term research on larger unknown threats and whether to deal only with DHS components or external stakeholders,” Donovan said. “This back and forth needs to stop and there needs to be candid conversation on what S&T’s mission should be.”
With the stand-up of DHS in 2003, the S&T Directorate was supposed to focus more on technology and low-risk development work to more quickly help meet the needs of its stakeholders. However, the S&T branch has often had a mix of higher-risk R&D aimed at generating high payoff capabilities as part of its portfolio.
Gerald Parker, an associate dean for Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Texas A&M Univ., told the panel that the S&T branch should be a “driver of innovation,” and be “nimble and agile” in how it operates. He said the budget uncertainty it suffers from year to year does constrain it.
Parker also said that the S&T branch should focus on research and innovation the way the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) does. DARPA’s work typically is focused on high-risk, high-payoff technologies.
A “DARPAesque” focus will help S&T “attract the best and brightest minds across the country,” he said.
S&T, through its operation of the National Urban Security Technology Laboratory (NUSTL), has been critical in evaluating a wide range of products for use by first responders and has enhanced the capabilities of the Fire Department of New York in preparing for and responding to potential nuclear and radiological incidents, Battalion Chief Timothy Rice, weapons of mass destruction branch coordinator for the department, said at the hearing.
The Trump administration has proposed cutting NUSTL and two other S&T owned labs in the FY ’18 budget request. The House has restored funding for the labs in a consolidated appropriations bill but the Senate has yet to act on the measure.
Rice said that he would like to see S&T provide more capabilities and data integration, including reach-back to experts and common operating pictures, in the areas of chemical and biological defense that DHS provides for radiation and nuclear detection and response.
Parker, who appeared before the panel testifying on his own behalf, said he is concerned that the S&T branch doesn’t give biological threats “priority consideration,” adding that he is worried about the potential closure of the National Biodefense and Analysis Countermeasures Center, one of the labs proposed for elimination by the administration that is funded in the House consolidated appropriations bill.
Parker did laud S&T’s efforts during the Obama administration to establish new goals and focus areas aimed at meeting the operational needs of its stakeholders the development of working relationships between the directorate and its broad array of stakeholders.
Jake Parker, director of Government Relations for the Security Industry Association (SIA), told the committee that its members believe that S&T’s programs are basically successful if they are “championed by a DHS operational component” that also plans to use the technology under development.
But even when S&T and a component agency are working closely together, industry isn’t always convinced that programs will be fruitful.
“There is a perception among in the industry that S&T programs only infrequently significantly impact the operational or procurement activities of the DHS components, even with a successful engagement,” SIA’s Parker said. “For this reason, the choice may be made to devote more time and resources to focus primarily on relationships with the component offices on the component side.”
Parker said S&Ts oversight of the process for designating certain technologies and services for limited liability protections has been a “major success and catalyst for adoption of new technology in many ways.” Vendors seeking liability protections for their anti-terrorism products put them through a SAFETY Act review done by S&T. He said SAFETY Act designation and certification also provides a level of credibility to the product.