US science directorate faces perennial challenge

  • The Directorate of Science and Technology programme in the US Department of Homeland Security has come under increasingly criticism for its approach to research and developing homeland security technology
  • The Directorate needs to focus more on basic research if it is to avoid becoming yet another operating agency.

On 7 August 2006, the US Senate unanimously confirmed Jay Cohen as the new under secretary of the Science and Technology Directorate of the US Department of Homeland Security.

From 2000 to late 2005, Dr Cohen, a retired rear admiral, served as chief of naval research and managed the Navy's USD1 billion science and technology programme. Although the Senate has offered Dr Cohen the opportunity to revitalise Science and Technology research in the department, the recent alleged plot to blow up transatlantic aircraft has already made the department's approach to research and developing security technology a political issue in this year's congressional elections. The directorate has several major problems requiring attention.

Budgetary challenges

The President's 2007 fiscal year (FY) budget proposal for the Science and Technology Directorate is USD1 billion, an overall decrease of USD484.8 million from the FY2006 budget. The almost half a billion dollar decrease mainly results from the transfer of certain projects to other agencies, in particular the recently established Domestic Nuclear Detection Office. This office, which received USD314.8 million in FY2006 when it was part of Science and Technology, has since been set up as a separate entity within the Department of Homeland Security.

The increasing budget for Domestic Nuclear Detection Office could have a disruptive effect on the Science and Technology Directorate programmes. In February 2006, the Bush administration proposed transferring USD315 million from Science and Technology's USD1.3 billion budget to fund the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office at a level of USD535 million during FY2007. The office co-ordinates US government efforts to develop a global network of nuclear detectors, but has an awkward organisational and staffing structure that extends across the federal bureaucracy to include the FBI and the departments of Defense, Energy, Justice and State. Some of its activities also appear to overlap with existing Science and Technology programmes.

Congressional complaints

The Science and Technology Directorate has also been criticised by the Government Accountability Office and Congress for its approach towards researching and developing homeland security technologies. The Government Accountability Office found that in 2003, the Department of Homeland Security redirected more than half of its USD110 million of research funds to pay for operational needs such as hiring additional airport screeners.

In 2004, the Government Accountability Office concluded the Department of Homeland Security had made little progress in crafting a comprehensive long-range plan for developing counter-measures against chemical, biological, nuclear and radiological agents. It also warned that the department's research and development co-ordination with other federal agencies remained at a suboptimal level.

One of its 2005 reports said these problems impeded the Department of Homeland Security's ability to develop detection devices for aircraft passengers' carry-on baggage.

Many members of Congress have commented about how slowly the Department of Homeland Security certifies and deploys new technologies. They have also raised concerns about excessive managerial turnover - Science and Technology has had four permanent or acting heads since 2003 - and budget reprogramming.

In June 2006, the Senate Appropriations Committee attached a bipartisan report to the FY2007 Department of Homeland Security budget submission describing the Science and Technology Directorate as "a rudderless ship without a clear way to get back on course". The report stated committee members were "extremely disappointed" with the way the Department of Homeland Security was managing its research and development activities. Congress ended up rescinding USD200 million in past research and development funding that Science and Technology had failed to spend in previous years.

The Senate has also proposed returning responsibility for some research on countermeasures to conventional explosives to the Transportation Security Administration, as well as the Transportation Security Laboratory, which was only recently integrated into Science and Technology.

As with research and development departments in other organisations, Science and Technology is finding it difficult to get the department's operators to think three to five years in advance rather than merely three to five months. The new Science and Technology chief financial officer will need to work hard to boost long-term funding on basic research within the framework of the department's strategic plan, which contains a five year to 10 year vision for the directorate's research, development, test and evaluation. Since its inception, Science and Technology has devoted only approximately two per cent of its budget to basic research.

Science and Technology has sometimes also had to manage programmes (most notably the BioWatch sensors) not assigned to a Department of Homeland Security operational agency. In general, Science and Technology should remain focused on its primary mission of generating ideas and technologies for use by other agencies, and not by operating projects itself.

Undeveloped threat assessments

Science and Technology needs to develop better tools for prioritising threats, vulnerabilities and risks. Assessing threats, vulnerabilities and risks in the homeland security area is an inherently complex process requiring many subjective judgments.

In some cases, the best tool will be role-playing using scenarios that make those involved analyse often unspoken perceptions about alternative future environments. Properly organised, scenarios alert people to the need to consider new methods of operations, new or changed requirements and new polices to mitigate or ideally avert risks.

Improving analytical support

One of Science and Technology's main responsibilities is to maintain and develop the US homeland security research and development complex. For example, the Homeland Security Centers of Excellence programme seeks to develop academic institutions where multi-disciplinary research on important fields of study related to homeland security can be analysed and best practices developed.

One way to strengthen the effectiveness of the centres is to ensure they receive adequate direction from the Department of Homeland Security. Although it is too early to determine how effectively the department is using the expertise being developed at these centres, Science and Technology appears to have so far treated these institutions less as support bodies and more as grant recipients. As a result, it has been less proactive in identifying the most urgent research problems.

In April 2004, Science and Technology established a Homeland Security Institute to provide independent analysis (but not conduct its own laboratory research and development) on numerous homeland security issues, many of which cut across Department of Homeland Security and federal government organisational lines. So far, the Homeland Security Institute has devoted most of its efforts to acquiring, training and organising its multidisciplinary staff of analysts. Staff from Science and Technology and the Homeland Security Institute should develop extensive personnel exchange programmes to improve their understanding of each other's needs and functions. They might consider adopting the practice of the Center for Naval Analyses, whose analysts spend multi-year rotations embedded within Navy components.

The Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency has been under-used. Its sponsored projects should not only anticipate innovations in the technologies and tactics employed by adversaries, but also generate technological surprises to enhance the counter-terrorist tools available for homeland defence. More generally, the Agency should drive technological transformation throughout the department. The Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency should focus on promoting revolutionary research potentially applicable to a range of missions and leave the task of simply upgrading or optimising current technologies for existing missions to other organisations.

Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington.

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