Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 18, 2009

A “Grand Challenge” of its Own

Filed under: Business of HLS,Congress and HLS,General Homeland Security,Technology for HLS — by Jessica Herrera-Flanigan on August 18, 2009

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.

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3 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 19, 2009 @ 1:02 am

Has the S&T Directorate adopted a formal mission statement? Also reviewing the DHS Strategic Plan indicates almost nothing about the Directorate? The DHS strategic plan is available on DHS website. Note that Dr. O’Toole if confirmed would be the first non-military and non-flag rank person to lead the S&T Directorate. To my knowledge seldom do Flag Rank officers end up running basic or applied research efforts except in special circumstances–e.g. General Leslie Groves and the Manhattan Project, but hey could be wrong. My thinking is Dr. O’Toole will be the first appropriate leader for the Directorate.

Comment by Jessica Herrera-Flanigan

August 19, 2009 @ 7:59 am

The Strategic Plan actually doesn’t mention any specific components, except for the organization chart at the end of the document – and S&T is included there. The use of “emerging technologies” is a guiding principle in the Strategic Plan designed to help the Department achieve its missions, goals, and objectives, as it is cross-cutting across areas (see the “Guiding Principles” section of the plan.

As for S&T’s specific mission, here is how it is described on the the DHS website:

Mission and Objectives

The S&T Directorate, in partnership with the private sector, national laboratories, universities, and other government agencies (domestic and foreign), helps push the innovation envelope and drive development and the use of high technology in support of homeland security.

The Directorate is focusing on enabling its customers—the Department components—and their customers, including Border Patrol agents, Coast Guardsmen, airport baggage screeners, federal air marshals, and state, local, and federal emergency responders, as well as the many others teamed and committed to the vital mission of securing the nation.

To reach its goals, the S&T Directorate is:

* Creating a customer-focused, output-oriented, full-service science and technology management organization that is consistent with its enabling legislation

* Incorporating lessons learned since the start-up of Department to sharpen its focus on executing mission-oriented programs

* Providing leadership and resources to develop the intellectual basis that is essential to future mission success

Also, Dr. O’Toole would not be the first non-military/non-flag rank person to lead S&T. Charles McQueary served as the first Undersecretary of S&T. Dr. McQueary was an engineer by background with significant experience in the defense industry base but I don’t believe he was military. (Feel free to correct if I’m recalling Dr. McQueary’s background incorrecty).

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 19, 2009 @ 11:20 am

Stand corrected on McQueary but not sure if Acting or confirmed by Senate but believe he was confirmed. Several have been Acting Under Secretaries for various lengths of time.

And thanks for the info. Now while looking like governmentese (sic–not sure there is such a word) I would like to know Jessica even discounting the fact that you are a lawyer {and remember was once myself] how do you think the S&T Directorate could make its biggest contribution? Mini-DARPA? Supporting DOE labs and FFRDC’s so closely analyzing developing private sector techology that might be of use to DHS? In other words small contracts! Asking the Patent Office to notify it of patent applications of utility to DHS? Formal liaison with DARPA? With the TSIWG [Technical----Working Group]? Running something like the Defense Science Board? Having a rep attend all meetings of the DSb? In other words what have been the S&T Directorate successes in their mind so far and of course their failures? Is S&T a learning organization or just another vehicle to stimulate private sector contractors that may or may not produce deliverables even reports of interest? I personally supported the formation of an S&T Directorate in the Homeland Security Act of 2002 and the legislative process that led to its passage. Just wondering whether others who supported it think it is as important to DHS long-run success as I do?

By the way the one entry in your listing of their mission that I would like to know how they view their success or failure so far as an organization is set forth next:

“Providing leadership and resources to develop the intellectual basis that is essential to future mission success”

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