President Obama nominated Tara O’Toole as Under Secretary for the Science & Technology Directorate (S&T) at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) earlier this summer. While approved by the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee and sent to the full Senate, her nomination was one that did not make it through in the final days before the Congressional August recess.
If and when Dr. O’Toole is confirmed, she will have a significant job ahead of her at S&T. Tasked with being the research and development arm of DHS, S&T has a budget of nearly $933 million (FY 2009) and is in charge of research in such areas as Chemical/Biological, Infrastructure, Command, Control and Interoperability (CCI), Explosives and Maritime. The Directorate also oversees the Department’s Centers of Excellence/University programs and runs partnerships with a number of the Energy Department’s labs.
S&T also oversees the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (HSARPA), an entity which has struggled to find its mission. Originally, it was intended to be Homeland’s equivalent of the Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a scientific arm that focuses on high-payoff, innovative, and potentially risky R&D. HSARPA, in its early days, focused significantly on conventional R&D that was not cutting edge but potentially provided some better returns. In the past year or so, there was a push to mold HSARPA into the DARPA model but it hasn’t quite gotten there yet.
One idea that Dr. O’Toole and others at DHS may want to consider as they take the helm is to create a “Grand Challenge” for HSARPA, similar to the well-known and successful DARPA Grand Challenge. The DARPA Grand Challenge, for those not familiar, is a competition sponsored by DARPA to facilitate robotic development for national security purposes. Teams from the robotics, automotive, and defense industries, as well as from academia and elsewhere, design autonomous ground vehicles to complete a course set up by DARPA, with the winners of the competition receiving cash prizes. There have been three DARPA Challenges to date, with the Urban Challenge, held in 2007, offering prizes of $2 million, $1 million, and $500,000, respectively, to the top three teams.
The theory between the DARPA Grand Challenge is that it “mobilizes the technical community to accelerate research and development in critical national security technology areas.“ If that is the case, why not develop a Homeland Security Grand Challenge?
There are countless specific technological challenges in the homeland security space that need to be addressed. The Department has continued to struggle with pairing technology with solutions in a number of areas, including in the areas of border security, transportation security, and infrastructure protection. As a result, Congress continues to mandate deadlines for implementing certain programs – deadlines that the agency has not always been able to meet.
A few ideas on some potential HSARPA Challenge subjects:
- Technology to address the 100% maritime cargo scanning mandated by the “Implementing the 9/11 Commission’s Recommendations Act of 2007.”
- Improved technology for identifying weapons, liquids, explosives, and the like at TSA security screening points to facilitate quicker and more effective travel.
- Technology to improve border crossing times at the Southern and Northern Border Ports of Entry (POE), especially at peak travel times and during special events.
- Technology to improve perimeter and access security at critical infrastructures and federal government buildings.
Admittedly, there are a couple of private sector-run security challenges already in existence. Those may be good for generally promoting emerging technologies for general homeland and national security purposes. They are not the same as a government-initiated challenge to a specific problem. If anything, those programs would compliment what the government could be doing to furthering security technologies.
In addition, there are companies who claim they have technologies that can address the issues described above. Allowing those companies, along with others, to openly and transparently demonstrate capabilities in a “crisis” designed environment would go far in getting these technologies out of the lab and pilot programs and into the field. This effort may also help Congress better understand what can and can’t be done with technology and what R&D still lies ahead.