Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 21, 2006

DHS S&T directorate under scrutiny

Filed under: DHS News,Technology for HLS — by Christian Beckner on August 21, 2006

The Washington Post had a story on Sunday about the Science and Technology (S&T) directorate at DHS, a piece written in the wake of recent coverage about gaps in aviation security research over the last few years. The article does a solid job of summarizing some of the difficulties that S&T has faced since it was created 3 1/2 years ago. A passage from it:

Despite spending billions of dollars to defend against everything from dirty bombs to anthrax, the administration has not delivered a coherent long-term strategy to underpin its rhetoric, said Albert H. Teich, director of science and policy programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Budgets have fluctuated, and personnel has turned over at a rapid rate, according to many who have worked with the department. Nearly all Homeland Security Department research activities will be cut for the first time next year, Teich said.

“The fundamental question that has not been answered adequately is: Where does science and technology fit into this country’s homeland security strategy?” said Michael A. Levi, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The Science and Technology Directorate was formed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to set national priorities and end the fragmentation across the government of research into weapons of mass destruction. Its mission includes deploying state-of-the-art detection systems and developing new kinds of response gear, as well as assessing emerging threats.

But with DHS’s well-documented start-up problems, the S&T Directorate has been thinly staffed and deprived of money. Its reorganization was put on the back burner by Secretary Michael Chertoff, who took over in March 2005. Meanwhile, its management problems sapped the confidence of administration officials and congressional funders, analysts said.

I think this assessment is generally correct, and I think the two key words in this passage are “thinly staffed.” There are a lot of good people in the S&T directorate, but not enough of them, and too much of the management and strategic work of the directorate has been outsourced to other government labs and outside contractors. There’s not enough “there” there. It makes sense for outside entities to be doing the actual research and development, but there needs to be a more dynamic core. Hopefully Adm. Jay Cohen’s new leadership and S&T’s pending reorganization will address these gaps and strengthen the directorate.

My only critique of the story is that its claim that the budget for S&T is being cut in half is misleading, since a very large share of that cut is the result of a shift of R&D funds to the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office. But overall, an interesting story.

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