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Security science still struggling

homeland sec.bmpBasic research at the US Department of Homeland Security has come a long way since 2002, but disturbing flaws still exist, according to testimony at a House of Representatives hearing today.

The DHS’s science and technology directorate, charged with developing gadgets for detecting explosives, dangerous persons, and chemical and biological weapons, has not performed a comprehensive risk assessment of threats, criticized David Wu, who chairs the subcommittee overseeing the directorate for the House Committee on Science and Technology, in his opening statement. As a result, it lacks a proper foundation for determining research priorities.

This is an “area of great concern that has yet to be addressed by the directorate”, despite repeated requests by the subcommittee, Wu said.

But Wu also commended the S&T directorate on its progress. The directorate got off to a rocky start, and has been moving in the right direction — recently allocating 20% of its budget to basic research, for example.

The harshest criticisms came from witness Cindy Williams, who chaired a DHS panel that conducted an evaluation (pdf) of the directorate. Williams echoed Wu’s remarks that the directorate lacks specific goals or even a broad strategic plan.

“To be fair,” she said, the program “only has the third largest budget [in DHS], after health and human services and the department of defense”. Williams recommended working more closely with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Williams also slammed the directorate’s review process. “Many of the directorate’s basic research projects are awarded without competition, without external peer review,” she said, referring to her panel’s findings. She recommended the directorate “make external scientific peer review the norm”.

For answers, all eyes were on key witness Brad Buswell, acting undersecretary of the S&T directorate. Buswell acknowedged that “systematic risk-assessment and strategic plan would absolutely help”, but also noted that the “customer-driven priorities” were important for informing the S&T’s decisions.

Buswell also agreed that “competition is good”, and “peer review is one way of ensuring that you’re picking high-quality projects and that they’re being executed in a high-quality way”, pointing out that some S&T research is peer-reviewed. But he also went on the defensive.

“All proposals coming in are, in effect, peer reviewed,” he said. “They’re reviewed by a panel of experts and stakeholders to make sure the proposal is sound and executable.”

Williams continued rapping knuckles, accusing the directorate of a lack of accountability, noting that though milestones were set, “there is very little consequence for missing them,” she said. “The main consequences seemed to be to renegotiate the milestone.”

Buswell thanked Williams for her “excellent observation” and said he “appreciated the input”. But he also pointed out that there was an important balance to strike between keeping project leaders on task toward a “milestone” and letting them keep an open mind for projects that might deliver sooner.

“The goal is to get technical capabilities to customers, not to manage projects,” he said. “We don’t want to disincenstivize people from abandoning their program because they’ve found something that will deliver sooner.”

Witness David Berteau, a senior adviser of the Defense Industrial Initiatives Group at the Center for Strategic International Studies, came to the directorate’s defense at the end. He pointed out that DHS is a complicated beast. For most government research, e.g. at NIH and NSF, the people benefiting are external. For the Department of Defense, the primary beneficiary is the department itself. But DHS is a hybrid.

“In some cases, that makes it much more complex. It’s difficult for those elements to be welded together,” he said, noting that there were two different standards and processes. “It’s important to keep that in mind.”

Throughout the hearing, there was conspicuous silence on one little issue: a new leader for S&T. Buswell has been acting undersecretary since former undersecretary Jay Cohen’s term ran out almost a year ago, and on 6 May President Obama nominated biosecurity expert Tara O’Toole — a move that received both ebullient praise and harsh aspersion. Though she faced some criticism from the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, including questions on her relationship to Congressman Jack Murtha, the committee voted to recommend her confirmation. Her nomination went on the Senate’s calendar 29 July, but she remains unconfirmed.


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