Chem-Bio Directorate Shifting Research Dollars Toward ‘Focused Innovative Technology’

By Grace V. Jean
The main criticism of any defense research and development program is that it often takes too long for the science to turn into a solution to help troops on the battlefield.  

The problem is particularly pronounced in the realm of chemical and biological defense. Despite investing billions of dollars in efforts to protect warriors from hazardous agents, the Pentagon’s arsenal to detect and overcome potential exposure to traditional and nontraditional agents is still limited.

The days of being able to throw money at different research initiatives to help solve the problem are over. Now the Defense Threat Reduction Agency has to be more selective in how it pursues and funds science and technology programs, said Alan S. Rudolph, director of the chemical and biological technologies directorate at DTRA.

“Our biggest challenge is focusing on hard problems and charting roadmaps to delivering real capability and product to deal with those hard problems,” he told National Defense in an interview at the agency’s headquarters in Fort Belvoir, Va. “We can’t just do more with less. We’re going to have to make some hard choices.”

Those decisions have to be made in the context of a tough economic climate where skeptics question the investment in defending against a threat that might never come to pass.

“We can’t be comfortable in how long it takes to put a contract on the street, and so we really do need to create that urgency,” said Rudolph.

“We will be judged after the next event, whether it’s a nuclear, chemical or biological one. How prepared were we?”

In order to be ready for the worst-case scenario, the directorate has sought broad research and innovation efforts through an antiquated, years-long process used by many government agencies, including the National Institutes of Health. The system must change as budgets grow tighter, Rudolph said.  

“We’re in the process of transforming that process to be a little bit more proactive about creating a focus, creating a programmatic interest, and going out and exciting and engaging a community to work with us against that challenge,” Rudolph said.

The directorate is developing a new method to tap scientists for research projects. Called “focused innovative technology” programs, or FIT, the idea is for science and technology managers to propose ideas for projects that will compete internally for funding. The managers then will run focus groups, speak with research communities to generate interest and ideas and then formulate the formal solicitation. The hope is that the resulting announcement, with its specific focal areas, will draw a community of scientists from academia, industry, non-profit organizations and government research laboratories who will pull together to tackle the challenge.

“We’re just getting started with this,” said Rudolph, who added that he had recently received and approved one of the first proposals initiated under this new process. It is centered on decontamination with a goal of cleaning up a facility or infrastructure in a short time frame.

Previously, the program manager would have issued a broad agency announcement listing general topics and problem areas falling under decontamination. Responses would have spanned the gamut.

Under the revamped process, the topics are more targeted. Program managers will hold researchers accountable at “milestones,” or interim goals, that will allow officials to manage innovation in a more productive way.

“We’re going to take some risk and if things aren’t working, we want to either assess that and say, ‘okay, it needs more time, but maybe a smaller investment,’ or ‘maybe we should do something else,’” said Rudolph.

This change in the solicitation procedures comes on the heels of not only the U.S. economic downturn, but also the H1N1 flu pandemic of 2009, which was a crystallizing moment for senior government leaders about the challenge of responding to a naturally occurring biological threat.

“In some ways, H1N1 was a potential tsunami,” said Rudolph. “We just happened to have a strain that wasn’t as noxious as it could have been. But the next time, we’d better be more prepared. And we’d better have that in our minds and not forget so that we operate with a sense of urgency in all that we do.”

Officials expect the FIT program will shape the majority of research projects that the agency pursues in the future. They hope that the new strategy for sourcing innovation will help researchers tackle difficult problems in novel ways — and at a quicker pace.

“We want to shorten timelines. We want to identify needs and get products into production and out to warfighters as soon as possible,” said Ken Myers, director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.  

One of the challenges is in standoff bio-sensing, or the ability to interrogate an environment or event for biological contaminants from a distance. Before, the directorate might have accepted a proposal to research lasers to sniff a cloud of suspicious vapors emanating from a building. But this new method of solving the problem could yield some better ideas that program managers might not have considered. “Maybe we’ll have a whole set of autonomous vehicles in the air or on the ground to get close to the cloud to collect a sample and transmit data back, rather than sit here with a large laser trying to impinge a point on the cloud,” said Rudolph.

Another challenge is in medical diagnostics to help identify diseases or infections in humans without having to run time-consuming tests for evidence of a particular virus or bacterium.
“We’ve traditionally gone after identifying the pathogen. I take a blood sample from you and I want to find the virus or the bacteria. But let’s say I can’t, or I haven’t seen it before. What can I tell about exposure or symptoms based on the host, or human response, or biomarkers?” explained Rudolph.

There is growing interest in cell phone technology to help solve this problem. Leveraging that relatively low-cost system for applications that could track symptoms or run a rudimentary scan could be beneficial.  

“Integrating a simple diagnostic test into a cell phone device would give capability both to the war fighter on the ground in the environment they’re in, but also allow connectivity to a database … where you could track an event based on a longitudinal baseline of personnel in the system,” said Rudolph. “It would be a great place to add some apps.”

The directorate continues to face a number of research challenges. In medical countermeasures, scientists are still working on methods to create a stockpile of vaccines and medications that can treat a wider variety of diseases and infections. In environmental detection, researchers are investigating ways to discern a biological or chemical attack in complex and populated locations, such as cities. And if the worst-case scenario does come to pass, scientists are examining ways to recover facilities and open-air spaces and restore operations in a relevant time frame.

A year from now, Rudolph hopes to see progress on many of these fronts.

“I would love to see anywhere from five to 10 new challenge problems that are hard problems that we have pushed forward with innovative solutions with a focused coalition of academia, industry and Defense Department labs attacking those problems in a milestone-driven way,” he said.  

Topics: Chem Bio Protection

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