DHS Centers of Excellence Spared from Budget Cuts

By Stew Magnuson
The fiscal year 2013 Department of Homeland Security budget proposal seeks to restore some of the huge cuts the Science and Technology Directorate suffered at the hands of Congress last year.

The department’s main research-and-development arm saw its funding drop from $828 million in FY 2011 to $668 million this year. The Obama administration wants to bring that number back up to its historic level, and add a bit more, by requesting $831 million.

Left largely untouched by these cuts are the 12 centers of excellence located at universities throughout the nation. The centers are designed to bring academics and their ideas for new products into the homeland security enterprise.

Although funding for university programs has remained steady at $40 million, the pressure is on to show results, said Margo Edwards, director of the Center for Maritime, Island and Remote and Extreme Environment Security located at the University of Hawaii.

“The message has been real clear. This is not just a whole bunch of scientists and engineers playing in a sandbox. The goal is to really develop tools that are going to be useful for stakeholders. That’s what we are trying to do,” she told National Defense.

Congress mandated the creation of a center of excellence in the Homeland Security Act of 2002. DHS Under Secretary Tara O’Toole, head of the Science and Technology Directorate, testified before the House last year that she couldn’t cut funding to the centers because of the law. However, nothing in the legislation specifies how many centers there must be.

While there have been concerns in the community that some of the centers could be eliminated, the 2013 proposal keeps their numbers intact. Most of the centers are consortiums comprising different universities. Twenty-five institutions take part in the program. There are centers specializing in border security, animal diseases, coastal hazards, transportation security, food protection and explosives threats.

As the centers’ numbers and participants have grown over the years, the funding has remained steady, which means fewer dollars for each institution.

One of the Hawaii lab’s products is currently being used in that state. A high-frequency radar is helping the Coast Guard track ocean currents near the shoreline. The radio waves bounce off the water and can help search-and-rescue teams locate where lost swimmers or boats may have ended up. The radars have been integrated into the service’s search and rescue optimal planning system. The center has installed three radars on the south shore of Oahu, and hopes to one day ring the island with the sensors.

Building and transitioning them to a commercial product, and bridging the so-called “Valley of Death,” where good ideas don’t make it out of the research-and-development phase, is the problem, Edwards said.

“That’s not something academics are known for doing particularly well,” she said. “We are really grappling with the Valley of Death.”

Center researchers have built a few radars in the laboratory, but they don’t have the capacity and personnel to continue making them. The center has to find partners to transition it into a commercial product. Meanwhile, it has sold radars to the Office of Naval Research, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation. ONR is interested in the technology to assist the Marine Corps when it plans shore landings, Edwards said.

The Hawaii-based lab has also developed an unmanned port security vessel that can remotely search for threats above and below water in ports.

Topics: Homeland Security, DHS Budget, DHS Leadership, DHS Policy

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